Dream Destination: Hawaii Part 2

Today we have the second part of Amy’s honeymoon to Hawaii, in case you missed it, here’s Part one – Oahu.

For now though, back to Amy!

Hawai’i (Big Island)

Where we stayedThe Sheraton Kona. This was recommended by our travel agent and we just agreed and went. From the reviews online and in the travel guides I think this is the ‘fanciest’ resort on the island but we were a little disappointed. The grounds, pool and facilities were wonderful, especially the Rays on the Bay restaurant which served excellent, reasonably priced food, the BEST cocktails, and had a viewing area for watching the manta rays who gathered every night. Unfortunately it was a sixties building that was very much in need of a facelift, especially the bedroom décor which was a bit of an offputting mustard/beige colour and a bit shabby. Kona is the ‘touristy’ part of the island which was still very quiet and relaxed, but I’d probably recommend staying in Hilo as that’s much closer to all of the main sights and places to visit.

What we did…

The main reason we went to this island was to see the volcanoes. It is home to both the worlds largest dormant and active volcanoes and we were really excited to see them, especially James who is really interested in geography and geology. In truth we were a little disappointed – obviously being a natural phenomenon there are no guarantees as to what you will see and sadly we didn’t get to see any lava flow. However there was still a lot to look at and learn about in the Volcanoes national park, including all of the new land from recent eruptions, and we did get to see the crater lit up from the lava at night quite close up which was pretty spectacular. If you are interested in all that geeky stuff like us I’d really recommend just getting out and exploring the island – it’s home to 11 different climates/eco systems and in the 6 hour drive to circumnavigate the island you will see nearly all of them, from desert to redwoods to rainforest. There are areas that resemble the wild west and that could be in the lake district, with the vast Mars like expanses of blackness from the eruptions.

We really enjoyed exploring all of the waterfalls on the east of the island – many of them are really accessible by car and clearly marked on all the maps. We also visited Hilo which is a strange mishmash of a town that has been rebuilt twice in the past 100 years after being wiped out by tsunamis and looks a little south American in it’s architectural style.

What we didn’t do – the Kona region of Hawai’i is famed for it’s coffee and a lot of the plantations offer free tours and tastings. We had planned to do this on our second day, but were feeling lazy and opted for lounging around with some cocktails instead! I’m not a coffee drinker (it gives me migraines,) but James tried some Kona coffee at the hotel and gave it the thumbs up (after previously saying all American coffee was awful) and I bought some as a gift for my dad.

Maui

Where we stayed

The Hyatt Regency Maui in Ka’anapali. Again this was selected by our travel agent and it was definitely a ‘honeymooners’ hotel (and the only one in which we weren’t upgraded) as we saw lots of other couples and a wedding while we were there. Having said that I’m not surprised! It was like being in a Disney film – there were waterfalls, rope bridges, tropical birds everywhere, a swan filled lagoon you could dine next to, and my favourite bit – PENGUINS!

What we did…

Honestly, not a great deal. We mainly stayed around the resort and relaxed after doing a lot of activities on the other islands but we did visit Lahaina, an old whaling town which is now a little touristy but well worth a wander around and was great for souvenir shopping, and Iao Needle in the valleys which was very spectacular and we are really glad we saw.

What we didn’t do – the road to Hana is a famous journey that’s recommended to all visitors with it’s 88 waterfalls and stunning coastline, but as we had done something similar on Big Island we decided not to bother. We also didn’t see any whales as we went outside of mating season (October – April) where they are clearly visible around the coast so the only way we could have seen some was to go on a boat excursion. Having done similar trips elsewhere we didn’t make this a priority.

We enjoyed everything we did on all the islands, it really was the most perfect trip imaginable. It’s hard to recommend just one place as I think different people visit Hawaii for different reasons and there really is something for everyone! We definitely want to go back to O’ahu and we would like to visit Kauai which is another island we didn’t have time for on this trip but it’s where Jurassic Park was filmed and is very lush and dramatic – apparently good for walking and biking. I’d say Big Island is probably only worth visiting if you’re really interested in geology and the volcanoes – it has the worst weather of all the islands and the scenery and views of the mountains are often obscured by cloud. Maui is probably the place most people from the UK visit and generally considered (understandably) to be paradise – it has some really dramatic scenery and lots to do and see whist still retaining a very quiet and relaxed vibe. This is probably the place I’d recommend to most visitors as I think everyone would find somewhere they loved there and if you’re going as a couple or family who all want slightly different things you will all be kept happy. I think it also has the most diverse mix of accommodation so again there’s something for everyone.

Basically, Hawaii is an amazing place and definitely worth the expense, epically long flight time, and horrifying jetlag you have to face if you’re visiting from the UK. I’m pretty sure we left a little bit of our souls there…

Anybody else already on flight checker? What an amazing trip. Thank you so much for sharing it with us Amy!

Love,
Rebecca
xo

Dream Destination: Hawaii, Part 1

Today I’m excited to be sharing a destination report from Amy. Amy got hitched in May (I was lucky enough to be invited along with some other lovely blog ladies,) and headed off on an incredible honeymoon to West Coast USA and Hawaii. I’ve always wanted to visit so I made her promise to write a report and share it right here…

We visited 3 of the 6 islands on our trip. This was quite a lot to pack into 11 nights (we also visited LA and San Francisco, so did a lot of hopping around.) In the future I’d limit it to one, or maybe 2 islands per trip, but it was great that we saw them the way we did and how different the islands are, both geologically and in their ways of life. We booked our trip through Trailfinders and hadn’t done that much research before we actually went, (too busy with wedding planning) so the only place we knew anything about really was O’ahu.

Hawaii is very much a ‘resort’ destination – and being our honeymoon we embraced that and did things in luxury style. I’m not sure if there are any more boutiquey hotels but I suspect it’s just either the big resorts or guesthouses/hostels. We flew with Virgin Atlantic and Hawaiian Airlines – it’s approximately 5 1/2 – 6 hours to Hawaii from California and the time is 11 hours behind the UK. It’s really easy to hop between the islands with pretty much daily flights, and only a 1 hour check in.

O’ahu

Where we stayedTurtle Bay Resort.

This was the only requirement we made to our travel agent. Most people visiting the Island stay in Honolulu or Waikiki, with a few staying in some of the more ‘exclusive’ resorts on the west coast (including Aulani – the Disney resort), but we knew we wanted to stay on the North Shore, and Turtle Bay is the only hotel there. Last year it had been getting some bad reviews for being a bit tired but they are mid way through a major restoration, with all the communal areas and about half the rooms now updated, and we really loved it.

It’s been given more of a ‘surf chic’ vibe which suited us down to the ground, they even have their own surf school, surf shop and a bar run by Surfer magazine which runs open events – while we were there we saw a talk by a legendary board shaper which was one of the highlights of our trip. The room we stayed in was an ‘Epic Ocean Front’ which had just been renovated (we were the first people in it) and it was absolutely lovely – really nice décor and the most amazing view imaginable!

The hotel is the one used in Forgetting Sarah Marshall so we also had lots of fun spotting locations from the film. It’s also where a lot of the Hunger Games cast stayed recently as they filmed part of Catching Fire in the next bay (I pumped our surf coach for gossip but the only thing he said was that Sam Claffin was the best surfer – to which I replied ‘Well OBVIOUSLY, he is Finnick’ and promptly lost all of the cool points I’d earned up to that point).

What we did…

We limited all of our time to soaking up the North Shore atmosphere, with a little bit of exploration down the windward (east) coast (mainly to find the Hukilau Café that was on Man v Food). We both absolutely loved it there and are pining for it terribly since leaving.

We had both read a lot about the area, mainly in relation to its history as the home of big wave surfing and we loved exploring the coast and seeing all the different famous breaks. We really liked Haliwea which was a small one road town full of food places and art galleries – I was really excited to be able to buy some prints by Heather Brown who I’ve been a fan of for a long time.

We tried snorkelling for the first time which we both really loved and went on to do more of, and we ticked off one of our major bucket list things by surfing the North Shore – we booked a private session with a surf coach instead of going it alone and I’m so glad we did as the waves are much bigger than anything you get in the UK and he really pushed us to do things properly and showed us where we’d been doing things wrong – although I’m still a really rubbish surfer, paddling out and sitting in the line up there is a thrill I’ll never forget.

What we didn’t do – Honolulu, Waikiki and Pearl Harbour. Given more time we would have definitely included some of this in our itinerary and were quite sad we didn’t have time for Pearl Harbour, but O’ahu is definitely somewhere we plan to return to.

 

Thanks so much Amy! Look out for part 2 next week readers. Have you been to Hawaii? Or like me, is it on your bucket list?

Love,
Rebecca
xo

Miami Vice: Where to Go

Late last year, Pete and I spent 2 weeks in Florida – not perhaps the most trendy of destinations but a well needed low-stress holiday. We flew into Orlando and had a couple of days of (childish) adult fun in Orlando, spending a day each in Disney World and Universal Studios Islands of Adventure then the following week was spent as the guests of our best friends’ parents in a Villa on the West Coast. Then Pete and I headed off and struck out for the East coast and some hedonistic fun in Miami. I’ve already recommended the hotel we stayed in, but I had to also share Miami itself as a destination and give you all a heads up on what we did there. We both fell in love with South Beach and I found in Miami the destination we were looking for – a stateside bolt-hole for early spring or late autumn guaranteed weather and relaxation.

Walking Tour
Whenever we visit somewhere new, I always rely on the advice of the concierge at the hotel for local tips and and insider’s perspective. We dropped our car at the airport and grabbed a taxi to get to south beach. As Miami is a place of mixed reputation including some deprived populations and resulting high crime areas, I was immediately keen to establish what was (or was not) safe for us to do. Our concierge assured us it was fine to walk about in the day time and as a result we headed directly out of our hotel and east across the island towards South Beach itself.


View Larger Map
A/G: The Mondrian // B: 11th Street Diner // C: South Beach // D: Ocean Drive // E: South Pointe Park // F: Cocktail bars //

This took us through a residential area, past a local park with body builders working out with a punch bag and finally past some Spanish style public buildings and the seedier Collins Avenue lined with tattoo parlours and tacky souvenir shops. Even in early November the weather was glorious, warm in the early to mid twenties with blue skies and sunshine.


The Beach, although a typical city beach, was beautiful with sparkling clear blue water and white sand stretching north and south. After a typical American breakfast of pancakes and eggs, we spent a couple of hours there and then decided to get out of the sun so went in search of some lunch.

We were right in the heart of the Art Deco district of South Beach and after eating at the middle eastern inspired News Cafe where we had a great meze style salad plate with hummous and pitta, we set off down Ocean Drive to take in the architecture (me) and car spot (Pete!)

As we reached the end of Ocean Drive the pavements became quieter and the neighbourhood looked somewhat neglected so we cut back onto the beach where we watched some surfers and continued south until we reached the southernmost tip of the island and South Pointe Park. Here marked the start of a boardwalk trail full of joggers and cyclists, families and locals.

We continued north again past a jaw-dropping arena and a couple of bars perfectly situated for a sunset cocktail (see below for a casual option, but the pictured bar was 2-3 minutes before reaching Texas de Brazil). The park runs into the Marina for a spot of awe-inspiring yacht spotting. For the final stretch of our tour we had to walk under the freeway and a couple of blocks north back to the hotel in a residential area, and if we did find ourselves feeling nervous it was purely due to lack of familiarity with the area rather than for any good reason.

Shopping
If I’m honest I didn’t find Florida great for shopping although that may have been the places that we were and it can’t be denied it’s one of the cheaper places to shop in the US due to having one of the lowest state taxes of 6% compared with much higher rates in the likes of California and New York. I thought Miami as a big city might be the exception but after a google search, only found the some of the big brands, like Abercrombie and Fitch in the huge Aventura Mall north of the city.

We didn’t want to spend a whole day there or do a huge shop so gave it a miss but if you are planning on going, you can catch a dedicated shuttle bus or taxi and be there in around 45minutes (dependent on the notoriously jammed Miami traffic.) Instead we headed to Fifth Avenue, only 2 or three blocks north of our hotel and did a bit of shopping each evening before dinner. Classed as an outdoor mall it stretches for blocks east to west across the island with shops interspersed with bars and pavement restaurants and even a cinema. The shops become less impressive and more touristy the further towards the beach side you go and I had to go all the way South to another shopping street, Collins Avenue, to find a Sephora.

Eating
Miami has such a diverse population and a wide range of different communities that the food is well worth exploring. All the usual American classics are covered but there are also Mexican, Spanish and Caribbean influences along with pan-Asian cuisine to satisfy the sophisticated after-hours crowd.

On our first evening we found a great Japanese influenced restaurant, Doraku Sushi, and indulged in surf-n-turf california rolls, tuna sashimi and seared teriyaki steak, then staggered home via a great ice-cream cafe.

Now’s the time for you guys to have your say… have you been to Miami and do you have anywhere great to recommend to the Florence Finds readership? Please do leave your hot spots in the comments box or let me know if you have any questions :)

Love,
Rebecca
xo

Little Black Book
Hotel:

Breakfast:

Lunch:

  • The News Cafe, Ocean Drive (Just north of the corner of 8th St and Ocean Drive

Drinks:

Dinner:

Shopping:

Recommended: The Mondrian, Miami

So, in case you have been living under a rock lately, or possibly decided to crawl under one to escape my incessant holiday Instagram posts (cruel, I know, I’m sorry!) …I just got back from Miami.

You might remember this post where I asked for advice on Miami things to do and talked about possible hotel options. In the end we booked The Mondrian in South Beach and I was so pleased with it that I had to share.

On the west side of South Beach (South Beach is an area as well as the glorious stretch of beach nearby,) overlooking Biscayne Bay, the hotel was perfectly positioned for our mid-afternoon arrival. It was our unabashed intention to crash onto a pool lounger and enjoy happy hour so we were super pleased to arrive in the lobby only 20 minutes after exiting the airport in a cab – $30 one way.

The Hotel is white, Daz white, all the way through, only punctuated by splashes of orange, gilt and black. Designed by Marcel Wanders (which I was suspicious about after seeing his disaster of a collaboration with M&S this year,) it reminded me of a Philip Stark Hotel. There are digital images of alien looking beauties throughout (including the rooms which is a little weird,) and a play on proportion with massive pillars that appear like turned table legs and oversized bells hanging from the ceiling that house sparkling crystal chandeliers.

On entering our room we were first taken aback by the size and secondly by the view. Overlooking downtown Miami, we did pay extra for a bay view but stopped short of a balcony, opting to save the pennies for Happy Hour. And Happy it was. Cocktails usually priced at $16-18 were $6 between 6-7pm, $7 at 7-8pm and $8 at 8-9pm, plus there was a selection of (huge) bar snacks too. We took advantage on all three nights (in the all white bar) and the only shame was that the clocks had gone back and the sun set about 5.30pm so we missed watching the sunset cocktail in hand.

Most unusually, the room had a tiny kitchen in it with hob, table and glassware for 2, coffee maker, kettle, fridge and cupboards. If we had been going for a week I would definitely have stocked up on cereal, milk, pre-dinner snacks and cocktail paraphernalia ;) . It also crossed my mind how handy it would be with a baby in tow for heating bottles or baby food…

The Pool was glorious. We lusted after passing boats, spotted manatees and topped up on Vitamin D before the long winter ahead. We also tried the restaurant, Asia de Cuba and were blown away by the Ceviche and Seared Ahi Tuna (for Pete) and Blacked Alaskan Cod (for me.)

Best of all, I feel we have finally found a destination, and hotel, that we could come back to for shoulder season fun. I had no idea it was so warm in November in Florida (it was between 22 and 28 degrees for the whole 2 weeks,) and we fell in love with Miami as a destination too. I’ll be sharing more on that next week :)

Have you got a favourite hotel or destination for shoulder season sun?

Love,
Rebecca
xo

Snapshots: A Different Kind of Halloween…

This Halloween I’m in Florida, which whilst not being the most typical of backdrops to a traditionally cold and dark celebration, what with the crystal clear blue skies and swaying palm trees, is actually pretty cool – the Americans really embrace this particular celebration.

As it’s Halloween today I thought I would share a few pictures from the most surprisingly Halloween-y stop we’ve had so far – at Disney’s Magic Kingdom in Orlando. It’s strangely the second time I’ve been in Disney at Halloween (I was there a few years ago in Paris for my Mum’s Birthday in October) and was impressed with the extent of the decor then. We also took full advantage of the more Halloween appropriate aspects of the park too ;)

Pumpkins greeting us at the Main Street entrance and Halloween garlands on the buildings…

Old town Halloween appropriate signage.

Disney Pumpkins on every street lamp…

Halloween paraphernalia and a headstone I spotted in the entrance to the Haunted mansion ride and couldn’t resist snapping. ;)

A chilling (but fun) tombstone…

Pumpkins decorating every surface.

Even Sleeping Beauty’s Castle got a spooky make-over…

Happy Halloween readers!

Love,
Rebecca
xo

Dream Destination: Death Valley

This morning I’m sharing more of my travels through the Californian National Parks, (and venturing into Nevada,) which ended for us with Death Valley. I thought it would be useful to share my travel tips for those of you planning a visit yourselves (please feel free to chip in with your tips too in the comments below,) and whilst the photographs I took whilst there are not in any way ‘pretty’, they are visually stunning. I hope they go some way towards illustrating this awe-inspiring landscape.

We came to Death Valley directly from Kernville – a tiny town we stopped over in after visiting Sequoia. Near to Lake Isabella and on the Kern River, it’s famous for it’s water sports and centres around the associated tourist trade, mainly from students. We arrived, had a burger at the local microbrewery along with glass of the artisan beer, crashed out and left early the next morning. If you take a similar route, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the B&B we stayed at The Kern River Inn Bed and Breakfast – the breakfast was amazing and our host very friendly.

It was a long drive into Death Valley, crossing several mountain ranges, climbing and descending through ever more uncompromising landscape. On route, we passed through Stovepipe Wells – described as a potential place for a stop over night in the Lonely Planet guide, I have never seen anywhere more barren and desolate in my life! We bought a park pass and hurried on through.


There was a certain thrill about visiting Death Valley, that knowledge that you were in some of the harshest conditions on the globe and watching the mercury rise as we descended into the valley was both exciting and scary. We drove for miles and miles without passing another car or even a sign of life.

Finally we arrived at Furnace Creek. In the middle of the Valley, there are several hotels (although far apart so it still appears very isolated and barren. The only one at a reasonable price point is the Furnach Creek Ranch, as opposed to the Furnace Creek Inn which is extremely expensive. The Ranch is best described as a soul-less motel but they’ve cornered the market as the only places to stay in the valley, and the prices reflect that, although unfortunately not the standard. I’d love to hear if any of you stayed elsewhere that you could recommend?

Our first stop was to head down to Badwater Basin – the site of the salt flats that Death Valley is famous for. On route we stopped at Devils golf course, a craggy landscape of furrows and salt crystals that reminded us of a hard frost on ploughed land back in England, if it wasn’t for the 110 degree heat. I can only liken it to standing in a hair dryer on full blast when the wind blew.

We got to Badwater Basin (named after the toxic water found there which often made desperately thirsty animals passing through ill,) at 7pm and the heat was still intense. We walked out to find the salt flats and generally marvelled at the solitude. There were few people there with us and if you turned around, on the mountainside behind us we could see the sign that marked sea level, 282ft above our heads. We headed back via Artists Drive – the scenic route, best seen at sunset when the sun lights up the rock in different pastel shades that come from the mineral deposits.

Still ridiculously uncomfortable, we have a couple of cocktails back at the resort, an over priced meat-fest of a meal and hit the sack pretty early.

After another early start and keen to hit the luxury of Vegas we left the resort earlyish and drove out with a slight detour to Dante’s Peak. A viewing point that took in the whole of Death Valley, it was quite incredible in it’s vastness.

I’m conscious that my write up here doesn’t sound thrilling or perhaps like I enjoyed this particular leg of our trip. It was certainly more about travelling than holidaying, part endurance test, part geological tour and totally surreal. I wouldn’t go back, but that’s because I have been and for me, it was about ticking off one of those amazing places that the world has to offer. There’s no denying that the landscape was just mind-blowing in it’s size and completely overwhelming. We didn’t spend nearly enough time there to fully appreciate it’s terrifying beauty and I would have loved to walk the canyons if we had been properly prepared for that kind of expedition.

So, have you been, would you like to go? Have you got any pearls of wisdom to share?

Love,
Rebecca
xo

Dream Destination: Miami

Next month, Pete and I are heading stateside again for a bit of relaxation. We’re going to Florida, home of the snow birds and heading for some poolside chillout time at a villa with our friends via Orlando and some theme park fun, then rounding off the trip with a bit of grown up time in Miami.

I’ve wanted to visit Miami for a while now, to see the Deco architecture and enjoy the ocean views teamed with city life, although I’m not sure if I might find it a bit Vegas-esque. You don’t know until you have been though, so off we go.

This is going to be the only part of the holiday when Pete and I will be alone and we’re planning a bit of luxury so I thought I would share a selection of Miami hotels that have caught my eye to offer options for every budget and style, and ask you guys if you had been to any, or if you had any recommendations.

First up, The Standard Spa. How could you not want to visit there when faced with those views?

That said, I’m always a little wary of a spa hotel. Given that we rarely make use of the spa facilities (due to often extortionate pricing,) it seems a bit of a waste. The website also doesn’t really try to sell the rooms, instead focusing on the spa areas and that’s always a big factor for me when I’m going away.

The Mondrian looks pretty incredible, with the decor we’ve come to associate with the Morgans Hotel group. We stayed at The Hudson in New York so know it’s a great vibe.

Designed by Marcel Wanders (did you see his collection with Marks and Spencer?) the decor is glamourous, over the top and tongue in cheek. It’s gone straight to the top of my wish list.

The Betsy is more of a classic colonial style hotel with luxurious touches. I’m put off by the courtyard pool but everything else about it’s quietly refined and elegant as you would expect from a landmark hotel.

Lastly, Townhouse Miami looks like a fun budget hotel option. There’s no pool but the decor is fresh and bright and there’s a decked rooftop if you can’t manage the very short walk to the beach. We could have stayed there for just over £400 for three nights which is great value, particularly if you don’t plan to spend much time in the room anyway.

So, have you got anywhere else I should look or can you recommend one of these options?

Love,
Rebecca
xo

Dream Destination: Sequoia National Park

Today I thought I would share some pictures of one of the places we visited on our trip through California earlier in the year. I had always wanted to see the tall trees. What I now know is that big trees can mean several different types – all in California. What we actually saw was The General Sherman tree (a Sequoia), the biggest tree (by volume) in the western hemisphere, in Sequoia National Park.

We started our journey to Sequoia from Yosemite and it took us around 4 hours, climbing to 6 thousand feet above sea level more than once on route. When we eventually reached the edge of the park we still had quite a drive to reach the main area where there is a cluster of ‘big trees’. We made a brief stop at Lodgepole for a bad sandwich with little else on offer before heading onwards to wards the big trees.


Big trees was a relative term, in fact although on the park maps only a few of the biggest were made note of, we drove through some absolute whoppers and the grove of trees that the General Sherman itself was in, was positively teaming with them.



Top image: The General Sherman tree.

It was a pretty incredible sight, walking though them, (sometimes quite literally as some fallen ones have features like a carved out tunnel,) craning your neck and squinting to view the top most branches.



Bottom image: Beetle Rock, with a view out over towards the California coast

I love the pictures we have here – the perspective and sense of the enormity of the trees and I’m really glad we went end though it required a massive detour on route to Vegas. In actual fact, Sequoia is much more of a wilderness experience if you really want to get back to nature – 100 times more ‘empty’ than Yosemite was. We only spent about an hour there, spotting in at the visitor centre, mindful of the fact we had another 3 or more hours to drive south to our stop that evening in Kernville.

Have you ever seen the big trees?

Love,
Rebecca
xo

PS Want to read more about my trip to California?

Dream Destination: Yosemite National Park

Of all the places we went on our recent USA road trip, (San Francisco, Yosemite National Park, Sequoia National Park, Death Valley and Las Vegas,) Yosemite was the absolute highlight for me and I would say somewhere that I will look back on forever as awe-inspiring and breath taking. I think everybody has places that they have seen in magazines, on the television or online and thought, ‘I really want to see that, to actually be there and feel it for myself,’ and for me that was the towering sheer cliff faces of El Capitan and the National Geographic pin-up, Half Dome. We chickened out of including Yosemite in our honeymoon trip because I didn’t think I’d be able to pack for the weather, the hiking gear, the serious ‘wilderness experience’ and I couldn’t have got it more wrong. So aside from making you catch your breath with awesome scenery this morning, I hope this post encourages some of you to include it in a future trip. I’d go so far as to say it’s worth making a special journey.


Tunnel View, looking east along Yosemite Valley on the morning we left the park. El Capitan is in the foreground on the left and half dome in the centre distance.

We drove from San Francisco and made the trip in about 3 hours and 45 minutes arriving at our accommodation, the Yosemite View Lodge in El Portal. I wasn’t very happy about staying here, we had fancied The Tenaya Lodge but as it happened we made by far the best choice. Not looking much from the outside, our room was huge – 2 doubles, a big bathroom and a mini kitchen, all very comfortable. The best part however was that we were 2 minutes drive from the (Arch Rock) entrance and another 10-15 minutes to the parking areas in Yosemite village, whereas when we passed the Tenaya lodge when we left the park on route to Sequoia, it was almost an hour south.


The Arch Rock entrance, near El Portal.

After check in we headed straight into the park, paying $20 for a week long pass and parked up. I had this idea that Yosemite would be really arduous to do but of course in true American style there is every convenience – a heck of a lot more than you’d get in the UK! The Valley has 2 main epicentres, Yosemite village and Camp Curry. The former houses the post office, a deli, pizza place, general store and the visitor centre with the usual things to look at and films to watch. Camp Curry is where the campsites are based or spread out from and has a couple more eating places, (pizza and burgers mainly,) with a bar. We found that if people weren’t camping they left at 5pm and ate outside the park, whereas we wanted to enjoy every minute so stayed and ate there. The downside was that there were few places to eat that opened later and they were in Camp Curry, so park down there if you don’t want to walk back later – it’s about a mile between them on foot. On our first night we walked between the two areas, got our bearings, saw deer, then headed back to the hotel for dinner.


Our first evening in the park, including our first view of the valley. The bottom picture was in Yosemite village – less village, more ‘forest clearing’!

The next day brought some heated debate over breakfast (we bought cereal in the hotel shop and fed ourselves breakfast in bed at the lodge,) about what kind of ‘hikes’ we were going to tackle. On entering the park you get a map which shows you the starting points of the main walks, all of which run off from Yosemite Valley. It’s also worth noting that there is a shuttle bus which does a loop around the valley taking you to each start point – good for maximising the energy you spend seeing stuff instead of getting there in the first place. The map also gives a guide of how strenuous the walks are and how long they take. After much discussion I talked Pete out of a crack of dawn 8 hour hike to the top of Yosemite Falls and we opted instead for what was described as THE walk to do in the park, the ‘mist trail’ to the top of Vernal Falls.


Hiking up to Vernal Falls and admiring the views.

It was described as moderate to strenuous hike taking around 4 hours so we set off with some trepidation. I don’t mind walking far but don’t love walking uphill; this was pretty easy I would say, with some short steep bits all the better for stopping to admire the view. We stopped on the footbridge halfway for the longest, admiring the falls then headed on to the mist trail. On the way up we sniggered a bit at people donning ponchos and bin bags over their gear before attempting the walk and strode past them feeling hardy, then emerged at the other end drenched! There’s a 5 or so minute section where the mist from the falls blows onto the path. Mist is a romantic expression and I would liken this more to English heavy drizzle whilst walking up a tiny stream! Thankfully after that we climbed the last short ascent and emerged into the sun to dry out. All in all the supposed 4 hour walk took us 2 hours up and 40 minutes back down, with lot of stops in both directions for pictures, so I’d say take the walk advice with a pinch of salt.


Getting soaked and looking down at the mist drenching people coming up the mist trail.

On both days we had lunch from the deli, queueing for it on the first day in Yosemite village. The second day we bought it at breakfast and ate it on our hike taking in the views – a good tip to save time. As we had time on our hands that first afternoon, we decided to ‘hike’ to Mirror Lake, a 40 minute or so, mainly flat walk, which was only difficult due to the heat.


Mirror Lake

We eventually decided we were in need of a drink and caught the shuttle bus to The Ahwahnee hotel, a legendary historic place with fabulous architecture and amazing history – presidents and royalty have stayed there. I sampled the signature cocktail, an El Capitini with it’s token carabiner souvenir!

Day two dawned and after a slightly later start we took a trail to the bottom of Yosemite Falls. We had already walked to the bottom of Bridal Veil Falls which took us less than 10 minutes at a brief stop along our usual drive into the park. One of the 5 highest waterfalls in the world, the walk to Yosemite Falls wasn’t nearly as impressive as the waterfall itself, with wide paved paths and tons of people so we decided to just go for it and hike to Columbia Rock. This was described as a strenuous uphill hike. It was later in the day and hotter than the day before so it was much harder going.


Top left, Bridal veil falls. Top right, view from the hike up to Columbia Rock and bottom, reaching the top.

We basically walked for an hour up large steps and switch backs with only one major look out point on the way and quite a bit of it in full sun, so really hot. However it was completely worth it. Where Vernal Falls was in a kind of crevice off the valley with views of the cliff walls, this trail took us up the side of the main part of the valley. Once we emerged onto the top we had panoramic views that showed the flat forested valley floor and sheer cliffs rising up, like something pre-historic.


The view from Columbia Rock of Yosemite Valley

We ate lunch there under a solitary tree and raced back down to rent a raft. We spent the afternoon on the river, floating on our backs downstream and stopping on various shingly beaches to sunbathe. That and pizza with a margarita at the Camp Curry bar was the perfect end to an extremely relaxing couple of days. The combination of activity and solitude was incredible and I really fell in love with it.


Camp Curry and rafting in the image above – can you see me walking along the fallen tree across the river

To round off, there’s just a few things I thought I’d mention because it might be of use to those of you planning trips:

  • Because lots of the park is on high ground, park information talks about snow and cold weather as late as June – hence my fears about being prepared. However Yosemite valley is warm barring odd weather – in the 80′s when we were there, so take sun cream and layers in case.
  • Park accommodation is expensive, wherever you stay. After my initial reservations, I actually liked our hotel, but if I went back I’d camp, for the real experience – you can camp in tents and huts that are already there and equipped with everything you need so no need to take it with you.
  • Campground reservations are available in blocks of one month at a time, up to five months in advance, on the 15th of each month at 7 am Pacific time and often sell out within minutes of going for sale – you need to be super organised!
  • Don’t be afraid of bears! I was, although we didn’t see any and apparently they are very afraid of you but you do have to be vigilant about keeping food in bear proof containers (which you can rent.) Don’t leave any in your car!


My last view of the sun setting on Half Dome as we left the park on our last night.

I hope you enjoyed the pictures and if you have any questions I’d love to answer them :) I can’t wait to go back already…

Love,
Rebecca
xo

Edit: I forgot to include this! The National Park service has tons of information on both the practicalities and fun things to do in Yosemite but in terms of what to do while you are there I used this site, which has day long itineraries in their planning guide. I never would have known about the rafts otherwise and you can rent bikes or horseride too.

Viva las Vegas: The Wynn and Encore hotel

After my recent trip around California ending in Las Vegas, I have literally so much to share with you, but thought I’d start at the end, with a review of the hotel we stayed in. It was really between Encore and one of the CityCenter complex hotels, which I think I would try next time, so I’ll be interested to hear if you can compare them.

The Room
When we were browsing hotels for our Vegas trip, there seemed to be 2 options; classic Vegas-style themed hotels that make up The Strip and much of Vegas’ characteristic attractions, or the new breed of uber luxury. Given that we wanted to treat ourselves and prices are relatively cheap considering the standard of hotels, we opted for the latter and chose Encore, the all-suite sister hotel of the Wynn. Built in 2005 the rooms looked stunning and the vibe seemed very young, cool and geared towards eating and drinking, plus essential poolside people watching.

Impressive is not the word for this hotel. On first arriving I was really over-awed. I’ve stayed in similar hotels before (Dubai seems the best comparison for opulence and sheer excess,) but having come from the solitude and isolation of Death Valley and other National parks before that, it was overwhelming in its contrasts.

Our room was incredible, with a wide hallway, wardrobe and large marble bathroom off that and then the bedroom followed by a separated lounge area with desk and floor to ceiling mountain views. (Strip views would have been amazing but were significantly more expensive and we were later told they could be noisy with traffic and party noise filtering up.) We also upgraded for about £40 to the top 10 floors and actually ended up on the 62nd, just under the top floor.

What I hadn’t anticipated was the all pervasive gaming and casino atmosphere. That might have seemed a little naive but we watched the hotel video and it was made such little note of. I expected the newer hotels to be a little less casino orientated and how wrong I was. Although much of it was close to windows and therefore different to some of the basement holes that passed for casinos in other hotels, of course, the whole hotel revolved around gaming. Bars have gaming screens built into the bar top, and many of the restaurants overlook the casino. There was even poolside gaming!

Most annoying for me was the smoke. Smoking is allowed in the casinos in Las Vegas and as a result basically filters throughout the whole hotel. We came face to face with cigars in the lifts, hotel corridors, cigarettes by the pool, in fact everywhere except the restaurants. It was a major turn off to Vegas for me, particularly when a short walk to your room or restaurant could leave you smelling of cigarettes like a blast from 2006 in the UK.

The Restaurants
We ate in the hotel restaurants each evening, first at Mizumi, a Japanese fine dining experience for our anniversary, the second at Society Cafe, (the fanciest cafe I’ve ever sat in that’s for sure,) and on the final night in Stratta after an epic walk down the strip. Although obviously expensive, the food was great in all of them, stunning in Mizumi and the decor in each was out of this world.

On our last day we also visited the brunch buffet which was incredible, although I was beyond disappointed that there were no breakfast items amongst the sushi, grill, barbecue, italian, seafood, asian and dessert offerings. I do like my pancakes!

The Pool
One of my favourite things about Encore was the pool scene. There are 5 pools at the Wynn – both Wynn and Encore have 2, a ‘resort’ pool and a ‘European’ pool, which was described as a place ‘you can go topless if you want to‘. We were a little bemused by that and I can only imagine they were trying to covey an atmosphere of beautiful people and decadence. In reality the guests weren’t topless (all but!) but there was brilliant music (on loud) and a great atmosphere, with people basically there to see and be seen.

I loved it and we spent a couple of hours each day at the Encore European pool. The fifth pool I mentioned above is the Encore Beach club – a pool party with DJ’s like Tiesto and Deadmau5. We thought about checking it out but it turned out tickets were $150, perhaps worth paying if you’re a fan of the DJ or club scene, but as we basically wanted to be a bit nosey, we opted out!

What I loved:

  • The range and quality of restaurants
  • The luxe rooms
  • The pool scene
  • Being able expected to dress up for everything from going to pool to dinner.
  • The incredible decor – not my personal taste but incredible all the same with amazing attention to detail and luxurious touches everywhere, from the curtain trims to table tops inlaid with mother of pearl.

What I hated:

  • The smoke
  • The cool kids (and not-so-youthful people flashing the cash)
  • The service, or lack of.
  • Did I mention the smoke?

To just qualify my statements about the service and the people, it really felt like the hotel was a conveyor belt designed to take our money. I’m not foolish enough to think that any hotel this size or in Vegas might be different, but from the lack of a bell boy, to the exclusive attitude of club managers (the lines were patrolled for pretty girls who were then ushered in for free, while men paid in excess of $100,) and the jaded looks of the casino staff, it really wasn’t for me. I like my luxury understated. We queued for check in like at the supermarket and it was a very faceless, impersonal experience. Little things like complimentary wifi, actually weren’t complimentary when we arrived. It was implied that as a hotel guest, you would get preferential access to things like the clubs but in reality it was very much about the way you looked and the image they were trying to create.

My conclusion, Vegas is like Marmite. You either love it or you hate it and I swung between the two throughout our stay. In the past, I thought it would be a great place to go back to in winter for guaranteed sun and some adult fun, but now, I think I’d choose another location. That said, I am glad we went. It’s not somewhere I see there being a lot of things you can do with kids (although we did see them at the pool with families,) but it’s certainly somewhere you have to see once. ;)

I’d love to hear if you have a hotel recommendation or any thoughts on Vegas hotels. I’m going to do a post on things to do another time, so save those suggestions for me!

Love,
Rebecca
xo