Thursday, December 29, 2016

London 2016 - Days 4 & 5 (12/27/2016 & 12/28/2016) - Solo Jaunt

I slept later yet again this morning, making it until 5:30.  Brad left for the airport at 6:30, leaving me with a day on my own in London.  I left the hotel at 8:40am, aiming to make it by foot to the Tower of London sometime around the 9am opening.  I was there around 9:10, and the lines were still short (which was not the case when I left a couple of hours later).  The tower experience was OK, so I didn't feel too bad about skipping out on it the first time I was in London 11 years ago.  I gave up on the audio guide after a while because I wasn't all that interested.  I also decided that I find the idea of crown jewels (and a monarchy in general) garish and outdated; I'm not sure how much my annoyance at the queue to see the jewels played into this decision.

From the tower I took the tube to Westminster.  I first went in search of something fast, open, and peculiar to London for lunch, but settled for Subway after finding 2 Itsu locations closed.  I then walked back to Westminster Abbey to (stand in line and then) do the audio tour.  I liked the cathedral, but not as much as St. Paul's.

Afterward I had about 1.5 hours to kill before heading for my 3:30pm Up at The O2 (UATO2) appointment.  This wasn't enough time to check out the Imperial War Museum, which had been my original plan (though I wasn't too torn up about it since I probably had enough battle artifacts from the Tower of London Armory).  After finding the ticket office for the houses of parliament closed, I took the tube over to Canary Wharf to check out the Crossrail Place building (which I had seen on some TV program) and its roof garden.

After that I took the Jubilee line one more stop over to North Greenwich, arriving at UATO2 right at the suggested 15 minutes prior (though that earliness was cancelled out by an inability to access my ticket barcode due to lack of an Internet connection - it eventually got sorted, though it should have been much easier than it was).  Overall the climb was probably worthwhile.  It wasn't as strenuous as the advertising would have you believe (I guess they're trying to CYA for couch potatoes), but the last part of the descent did get a little slippery for some people.  The view up top would also be much better if it were closer to central London.

After the climb I had a quick dinner at Square Pie in the O2, then took the Underground back to the hotel.  My length and quality of sleep improved even more that night, just in time for me to depart back to Seattle the next morning.  I was fortunate enough to get business class again for the return flight, with less worrying in the run-up this time.

London 2016 - Day 3 (12/26/2016) - Come on ya Gunners!

I slept a little later this morning - made it to 3 or 4 before not being able to sleep anymore.  We left the hotel at 10:15 and then walked across the Millennium Bridge to St. Paul's Cathedral.  Brad didn't think it would be worth paying to enter, so we went on a walkabout while I went in and did the highlights audio tour, and then the stair climb to the top gallery on the outside of the dome.  I was more impressed with the building than I expected to be - the architecture/design, the ability to explore a lot of it, the view outside from the top, the crypt, etc.  I eventually made my way to the designated meeting point around 12:45, 15 minutes late.

From there we found another Thai restaurant to have lunch and then took the tube to Emirates Stadium.  Brad did not get a ticket to the match ahead of time (whereas I had bought an Arsenal membership just to get access to a ticket for the match), and thought that he might be able to scrounge one up at the stadium.  He passed on picking one up on the street and instead chose to stand in line at the box office.  This is where I left him to go find my seat before the match started.  I later found out that they ran out of tickets before he made his way to the window, and had done a bit of wandering and eating while I was spectating.  Arsenal managed to squeeze out a 1-0 victory with an 86th minute goal after dominating possession and chances throughout.

After meeting back up we took the Underground back to Southwark and found dinner at a Turkish place named Tas - the vegetarian moussaka was quite good.

London 2016 - Day 2 (12/25/2016) - Biking Around London on Christmas

I was asleep by 9pm the night before, and slept deeply until right at 2am.  But then I was wide away for the next 4 or 5 hours.  The jet lag did something similar to me each of the next 2 nights.  I did manage to drift in and out of some half-sleep for a few hours before Brad arose at 11am - he handled the time change much better than I did, getting a good long sleep in.  We weren't in any particular hurry because most of the city, including public transit, was shut down for Christmas.  We lazed around the room for a while (breakfast consisted of some makeshift items we had picked up at a Coop convenience store the night before), finally leaving around 2pm.

We had a light late lunch at an EAT. shop on the south end of the London Bridge, then rented some bikes for a couple of hours.  This ended up being a really good idea (credit goes to Brad) despite my not having ridden a bike in something like 8 years.  The bike rental stands are plentiful in the city, and the car traffic was significantly reduced due to the holiday - which made it less scary for me.  I will say, though, that there were still quite a good number of tourists milling around town even though almost nothing was open.

We rode over and crossed the Thames on the Tower Bridge (on foot because there was no bike lane, and I was till getting re-familiarized with riding).  From there we rode north to the Gherkin building, then back down and west along the north bank of the Thames via a Quietway route (which are a great way to avoid car traffic - more cities should do something like this).  We crossed back over the river at the Westminster Bridge, then made our way toward a pub called The Anchor - the hotel staff had mentioned that it was one of the few places that is open on Christmas.  By the time we returned the bikes and made it to the pub, it was only open for 15 more minutes.  Brad grabbed a quick beer and then we walked back to the hotel and ate dinner at the restaurant there.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

London 2016 - Days 0 & 1 (12/23/2016 & 12/24/2016) - Seattle to London

The idea for this trip started when during his visit to Seattle this autumn Brad Schwartz mentioned that (a) Delta, his employer, has nonstop flights between Seattle and London; (b) he was willing to give me a buddy pass on Delta (a significantly reduced fare where I would fly standby, but be booked for business class).  He thought that my chances of getting business class during this time of year (off-peak) would be pretty good.  Combined with my desire to see an Arsenal match, and the holiday break from work, I had to give it a shot.  I made plans to attend the Arsenal Boxing Day match against West Brom, and about a week prior to the trip Brad decided that he was going to join me in London after all (a possibility that he had been considering ever since the subject was broached).

The seat status on the flight looked good for me right up until a couple of days before the trip.  A Virgin Atlantic pilot strike caused some additional bookings on the flight (Brad wasn't sure how legit they were), and then a few Delta employees registered standby (and thus ahead of me on the list) the day before.  Brad was a lot more worried than I was (and even drew up contingency plans), even though he had his own routing issued to deal with for his trip to London from Atlanta - he gave me a 90% chance of getting on the flight and a 20% chance of getting business class.  In the end, I got both, with one person below me on the upgrade list, and one business class seat to spare after everyone was given a seat (along with 6 remaining seats in economy).

On the slight downside, I was one of the last to get on the plane because they were still sorting out the standby situation when boarding began.  This resulted in the vegetarian main course not being available when the flight attendant got around to taking my order.  I "made do" with just the appetizer salad, the string beans from the chicken option, and chocolate lava cake with ice cream for dessert - first world problems.

My flight left in the evening of the 23rd and arrived on the afternoon of the 24th.  Brad beat me there by an hour or so - he transited via Amsterdam form Atlanta.  After meeting up at the arrival area (we had very fortunate timing with him coming over to my terminal just as I was leaving customs), we bought a couple of Oyster cards and took the Underground into town.  We were staying at the Hilton London Bankside, which was a few blocks from the Southwark station.

After checking in and dropping off our things, we went for a walkabout.  We crossed the Millennium Bridge and then wandered into Covent Garden.  We were feeling Thai food for dinner, and eventually found one place (Busaba) that was open after three failed attempts - Christmas Eve, Christmas, and Boxing Day would limit our options for the duration of the trip.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Hawaii 2016 - Day 6 (12/8/2016) - Museum Day

It was rainy all day so I was content to make this a museum day.  I had an early lunch at a place close to the hotel called Ruffage Natural Foods, which had plenty of vegetarian options.  After that I took off for the State Capitol Building.  I wasn't able to get into any of the legislative chambers since they were not in session, but I was able to take pictures in the Executive Chamber.

My next stop was the Iolani Palace next door.  Unfortunately, the next available audio tour didn't start until 1:45pm, so I had a little waiting around to do.  Also, during the tour itself my audio player (a repurposed original iPhone or iPhone 3G) ran out of battery power - it was OK, though, since I was close to the end.

After that I drove over to the Bishop Museum, which was a bigger complex than I expected.  I got in for the Island Earth show at the planetarium, which was kind of informative but a little too hokey since it was intended for grade-schoolers.  I will say that the globe projection that they have in the planetarium entrance area is pretty cool, though.  I only had 2 hours at the museum before it closed, which was not nearly enough.

Speaking of stuff that I didn't get to do that I would have liked to, here's a list of things that I'll need to check out next time on the island:
  • Haiku Stairs, aka Stairway to Heaven
  • Byodo-In Temple
  • Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve
After the museum, I went in search of a vegetarian restaurant.  I tried 2 that were closed despite the Google Maps hours indicating otherwise (one appeared to be a temporary closure, but I'm not sure about the other), before finding Peace Cafe to be open.  After dinner there, I headed back to the hotel to close out my Hawaiian vacation.  Nothing further of note happened before my noon flight to LAX the next day.

Pictures can be found here:

Hawaii 2016 - Day 5 (12/7/2016) - Oahu

First on the agenda for the day was Diamond Head.  I made it there around 10am, parked outside the park (the inside lot was understandably full), then made the hike in and up.  The hike was only mildly strenuous, but I was still drenched in sweat by the time I was done; I don't understand how some of the little Asian ladies made it up and down nicely dressed and in nice shoes without breaking a sweat.  After that, around noon, I need to go back to the hotel to shower again before doing anything else.

Next was a visit to the Pearl Harbor Historic Sites, on what happened to be the 75th anniversary of the attack by Japan (no, I didn't plan that - it was a happy accident); I didn't see any of the formal ceremonies, though.  By the time I got there, the tickets to the USS Arizona Memorial (which are free) were gone for the day.  The guy behind the desk advised me that since I was solo they might let me through with one of the groups if I hung around by the entrance to the movie where they assembled.  Fortunately this worked, and I was able to get in with the 2pm group.  Our group had a survivor of the attack with us - he received a rousing ovation, was first to get on and off the boat to the memorial, and had several picture requests from other attendees (including a few young ladies).  I will admit that I got a little emotional when I saw the guy, but I held it together pretty well.  Overall I thought that the memorial and the general site was quite tasteful.  If there's a next time, I'll try to check out the other memorials/museums (e.g., USS Missouri) on the site.

After leaving Pearl Harbor I drove up to Haleiwa in search of the Hula Dog food truck (they have a veggie dog), but it was closed.  Instead I went across to the Pipeline Pita food truck and had a felafel gyro and pineapple slush (which was served in a pineapple) - they were both OK, though the slush was not worth the price.  From there I hustled up to Shark's Cove to check it out before it got too dark - I arrived just at sunset, though it was too cloudy to see the sun.  I got in a brief conversation with two couples who were hanging around nearby (I heard them discussing the Polynesian Culture Center, and was curious what their opinion was), and then we said our goodbyes as it got dark.  From there I drove back to the hotel.

Pictures can be found here:

Hawaii 2016 - Day 4 (12/6/2016) - Maui to Oahu

I had a noon flight from Kahului to Honolulu, so I didn't try to get in any activities this morning.  The turboprop flight on Island Air took maybe 40 minutes, and provided nice views of Moloka‘i and O‘ahu.  I wasn't as fortunate with Emerald Aisle this time around, with a Nissan Altima being the only option that wasn't a minivan.  I found my way to the Waikiki Resort Hotel and then checked in.  One thing I liked about this hotel (which I didn't know beforehand) was that they offered an "unlimited" DVD rental service from a kiosk in the lobby - I guess that resort fee is good for something after all.

After stowing my gear, I drove out to check out a couple of spots that had been recommended to me by coworkers.  My first attempt was the Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve, but I found that entrance to the park was closed on Tuesdays.  Next I went in search of Spitting Cave, which Nick Dare said was his favorite place in the world.  I have to agree that it is a pretty cool place (though unexpected given the neighborhood that you drive into to get there), with a nice cliff-side overlook of the ocean.  Unfortunately, I didn't even get a great view of the cave itself doing its spitting thing, as I didn't know what to look for.  Also, I had a near-panic moment after mustering up enough courage to cross the narrow slope (above the cave inlet) to get to the eastern jut of the cliff.  I got about halfway when the other two guys who were there started crossing back over, so I sat on the rocks to let them pass by.  After they had passed and I snapped a few pics, I realized that I didn't want to be out on the other side and have to cross back by myself with them gone.  So I freaked out a little bit and gingerly made my way back to safety.  In retrospect, I probably way over-exaggerated the danger in my mind. For one, the crossing wasn't really *that* steep, and it is pretty easy to just walk across.  Secondly, if I had fallen over the edge, having those guys around would not have made a difference.  In any case, it was still a great spot to check out.

My next stop was Diamond Head State Monument.  When I arrived there around 4:40pm, the guy at the entrance window told me that I would have to hustle if I wanted to make the hike up and back by the time they closed the gate at 6pm since it ordinarily takes about 45 minutes each way.  I probably could have done it, but I decided that I wanted to take my time admiring the view during the hike, so passed for that night.

I drove back to the hotel and parked the car, then went for a walk around Waikiki.  I ended up having dinner (a veggie burger) at a Mahaloha Burger in the food court of some shopping center.

Pictures can be found here:

Hawaii 2016 - Day 3 (12/5/2016) - Haleakalā

I was a bit lazier this morning, with the first order of business being a stroll along Kahekili Beach.  After cleaning up back in the room I drove to Whaler's Village to find some cheap lunch (pizza) in the food court.  Next, I drove up the northwest coast to Nakalele Blowhole, arriving around 1:30pm.  I hiked down to the blowhole, snapped a few pics, and then returned to the car.  I worked up quite a sweat on the way back up, even though it wasn't very strenuous (I'm finding that I sweat even more as I advance in years, and I've always been a sweaty person).

My next destination was the peak of Haleakalā, the dormant shield volcano that makes up the eastern part of the island.  I continued along route 340 on the northwest coast to get back to Kahului.  That road was well paved, but was winding and a single lane for long stretches (I continuously worried how I would get by if another car approached from the opposite direction).  The going was pretty easy after the approach to Kahului, though, as even the Haleakalā Highway is two-way and well paved all the way up the mountain (except for maybe 1 or 2 bridge crossings while on the mountain).  The National Park Service describes the summit as remote (since the nearest emergency help is probably 45 minutes away), but it is quite easy to get to and at no point did I seriously fear for my safety.

The drive up was interesting, with cattle often visible along the road on the lower half.  The road went up through the clouds, and then things cleared up as I approached the National Park entrance.  It remained clear until a couple miles from the summit, at which point it began to drizzle, but with strong winds that made it feel like a more substantial rain.  I parked at the Summit Building parking lot at 4:15pm (where it was 46 degrees Fahrenheit), made a quick jaunt up the stairs to check out the summit building, then left to check out the lookouts a little lower on the road.  I was lucky to catch a nice sunset (~5:45pm) just below the clouds on the way down the mountain.

After that I headed back to Kahului to grab dinner at Max's Restaurant before returning to the hotel.

Pictures can be found here:

Hawaii 2016 - Days 1 & 2 (12/3/2016 & 12/4/2016) - Road Past Hana

I had an afternoon flight from Seattle to Maui, arriving around 9:00 at night.  At the National Car Rental, their computer systems were down so (from what I could gather) they appeared to be giving all Emerald Aisle customers access to the Executive cars as well.  In any case, I picked a Buick LaCrosse.  I only mention this because I really enjoyed driving that car for the 3 days that I had it.

I wasn't sure if my T-Mobile pre-paid plan would have service in Hawaii, but the coverage turned out to be pretty good - I had LTE service upon landing.  I had downloaded the Maui and Oahu islands in Google Maps so that the data would be available for offline navigation - this ended up being helpful for some of the stretches where I didn't have service.  However, my phone's GPS did not position me well enough to do guided navigation to the Royal Lahaina Resort, where I was staying.  I therefore navigated based on the directions listing, with the GPS location only becoming good enough to follow my position about 5 minutes away from the hotel.  A reset of the phone the next morning fixed the positioning issues for the most part.

On Sunday morning, I looked up some breakfast places on Trip Advisor and decided to drive to Duke's Beach House which was at the Honua Kai Resort a little further up Honoapiilani Hwy.  To be honest, I'm not really sure why I didn't just eat at the restaurant at my resort.

I finished breakfast around 10:15am and took off for the Road to Hana, aka Hana Highway, having to get back to Kahului first.  The Hana Highway (routes 36 and 360) is about 65 miles long and connects Kahului to Hana along the north coast of Maui.  However, it takes about 2.5 hours to drive (with no stops) because it is very winding and narrow, with one-way traffic at many short stretches (e.g., crossing old bridges).  In addition, there are many scenic stops along the way that make the journey longer and more worthwhile.  Thankfully, this stretch of road is well maintained and makes for a smooth drive  There was light rain on and off throughout the late morning and afternoon, but did didn't deter me from making quite a few stops, including:
  • Hookipa Lookout - this was a great place to watch surfers below, and the waves were pretty good, though not huge (I'm not sure how they compare to the waves most days); the light rain didn't bother me too much here, and I assume it doesn't bother the surfers who are already in water; one of my favorite stops.
  • Twin Falls - a lot of cars stop here because it provides access to the first waterfall along the route; the waterfalls aren't super impressive, but it may be worth the detour.
  • Garden of Eden Arboretum & Botanical Garden - this may be worth the $16 if you're into trees (they had quite a few types labeled) and vegetation, but otherwise you should probably skip it - you can get similar landscape views for free.
  • Kaumahina State Wayside - nice to have a public toilet along the route; also provides a decent view of Nua‘ailua Bay.
  •  Ke‘Anae - I really liked the rocky shores there.
  • Somewhere in there I stopped for a late lunch at a group of roadside eateries.  I got a veggie taco from a place called Island Style Taco - I wasn't too impressed, but it at least provided sustenance.
  • Hana Lava Tube - I actually passed on going down into the caves because I was running out of daylight (it takes something like 30 minutes to go through) and I was a little scared to go in alone; I would have done it if I had company and more time.
  • Waianapanapa State Park - made a quick stop to overlook the black sand beach.
  • Hamoa Beach - there was a nice view overlooking it, but the beach itself wasn't spectacular, partially due to the rainy weather; there were some great waves coming in, though.

It was past 4pm by the time I reached Hana, and I kept going down the road, wanting to see a few more sights.  I stopped at Wailua Falls, which is one of a few that are visible from the one-lane bridge crossings, because it was on my list; really, I drove past it, parked, then walked back - I wouldn't suggest stopping at/on the bridge itself.

I made it to Ohe'o Gulch (and the Kipahulu Visitor Center of Haleakalā National Park) around 5pm, but decided not to stop and check out the natural features because the sunset was quickly approaching.  The roads had greatly deteriorated after passing Hana and I feared that the drive back would be pretty bad (I was about as far away from the hotel as could be possible on the island).  I was right to be worried - the road along the southeast coast of the island was awful.  It was highly deteriorated (parts were more gravel than paved, with potholes aplenty), narrow (i.e., one car width) for long stretches, and had missing/decayed guard rails at a couple of cliff edges.  Add to this the fact that the sun was setting, and I literally feared that I might not make it back alive, as I didn't know how long the stretch of bad road would continue.  After a very tense hour or so the road improved significantly as it turned inland - smooth pavement returned and there were no more winding turns.  It began raining around 6pm when it turned dark, but by then I was thankfully on the better road.

By the time route 31 connected to route 37 I was more at ease.  I made it up to Kahului then back to the hotel around 8pm, very grateful to be in safe and familiar territory.

Pictures can be found here: