Sunday, January 31, 2010

Hawaiian Ohana Homecoming

In the Hawaiian language ohana means family. When we bought a week at Marriott's Vacation Club at Ko Olina on the northwestern shore of Oahu two years ago we were told we were now members of the "Marriott ohana" and that we had just purchased 'a piece of paradise'. Since I come from the world of public relations I had to agree that both sound better than saying we bought a timeshare.

On Friday we began our two-week stay at Ko Olina, which they tell us means 'place of joy' in Hawaiian. We were greeted at check-in by clerks who warmly welcomed us 'home'. So here we are at home in Hawaii with our fellow Marriott family members for the next two weeks.

Because the piece of paradise we purchased is what they call a two-bedroom lock off, we are able to stay two weeks for basically the price of one. This first week we are in the smaller guest room side that has a couch, chair, coffee table and studio sized kitchen and king bed and small deck; next week we move to the bigger unit which has a full bedroom, living and dining room and large kitchen with en suite washer and dryer.

This photo is from our deck in the Hale Nai'a (dolphin in Hawaiian) building that was completed last year. In fact only the wing we are in is yet open as result of the economic downturn in tourism here. The other wing is now scheduled to open next year. There are now three buildings as part of the Marriott complex and someday there are plans for a fourth.

Our view is straight out over the lagoon of the same name as the building and the Pacific Ocean. We also have a great view of the JW Marriott (in the distance in this photo). So our days start on the deck watching the sun turn the water from its dawn silvers to the deep blues of mid-day and we watch the day come to a close from the same viewpoint. And that bit about owning 'a piece of paradise' isn't p.r. spin, it really is paradise.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Maui timeshares: A Taxing Tale

We've discussed timeshare ownership with a number of those reading this blog and thought you would find of interest tidbits from an article appearing in the Jan. 22, 2010 Pacific Business News, that took a close look at Maui's timeshare tax and the money and ire it is raising on that island.

The article written by Janis Magin says, "Maui County became the only local government in the U.S. to create a tax rate category just for time shares in 2005, and at $14 per $1,000 of assessed valuation has the highest tax rate on time shares in the nation, according to the time-share industry's trade group, the American Resort Development Association."

She reported that the Starwood Vacation Ownership sent an email letter to time-share owners that said property taxes for the Westin Kaanapali Ocean Resort Villas North went from $1.2 million last year to nearly $6.4 million this year.

On Maui, Magin writes, a residential condo is taxed at $4.85 per $1,000 or $2 per thousand if it is the owner's primary residence. A timeshare unit is taxed at $14 per $1,000 and that bill is split among 51 owners. At the Westin Kaanapali Ocean Resort Villas the 2009 assessed valuation for more than 280 units ranged from $555,000 to $2.9 million and taxes on those units range from $7,700 to $41,101.

We've been pondering the purchase of another timeshare week, and it certainly would be something we would keep in mind had Maui been the destination we were considering.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Diamond Head's a Gem

We opted this trip to skip our walk around Diamond Head and haven't yet been inspired to climb up Diamond Head; instead we climbed down the switchback path to the beach at Diamond Head Beach Park and wondered why we had never done it before. The beach was of the finest sand around areas of long-ago lava flows. . .that today make for spectacular tidal pools. The climb back up the hill was made easier by using a beacch access road we found on the Waikiki side of the lighthouse. It was an easy two mile walk to the park from the hotel and a mile or so along the beach. . .and justified another one of our ono grindz dinners.

Honolulu Headlines: Vog and Vagrants

Thought I'd add a touch of reality to these posts from paradise. So I am sharing a couple of topics that have made the news around here this last week. First, Honolulu has been under a 'vog' canope off and on since we arrived. Vog is the local term for a condition like fog, but made up of volcanic dust and debris. It is being brought to us by the Kona winds from the volcano on the same island. Trade winds, blowing the opposite direction, have come along for a couple of days and cleaned up the air, with both strong winds and a bit of rain, but by tomorrow there is talk of the 'vog' returning. Okay, so being from the Pacific Northwest, I have to admit we hadn't noticed it until people and the press alerted us to the conditions (which can cause problems for those with breathing ailments). This photo shows the cover at sunset. I mentioned a bit of rain which came the other evening: another headline alerted us to the fact that Hawaii is suffering from a drought.

One of the other topics getting press is what we call in the Seattle area, "Tent Cities" the encampment of homeless folks in tents. We saw such a city out in the Makaha area of the island last year and a few along the Northshore. This year more tents are visible in Fort Derussy Park and Kapi'olani, in the heart of Honolulu/Waikiki which has lawmakers debating how to address the problem. The latest being pondered is a fee for tents and abolishing grocery carts from the park (often used by homeless to carry their belongings). Again, we had been commenting on the number of 'campers' using the park last weekend. Good to have the press keeping us up to date on what's going on around us.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Waikiki Ono Grindz

Ono grindz, that's Hawaiian for good food. And ono grindz is in abundance here. You could eat yourself to death -- I at least am appreciating those floral mu-mu dresses, that appear more tent-like than fashion -- having started to eat my way through town. I had mentioned deck dining in an earlier post -- this photo was my $10.50 dinner: chicken katsu, bbq pork, potato salad, broccoli (I had to have something healthy) and two types of kim chee, the spicey Korean vegetables and of course two scoops of rice. Yes, that was my plate; Joel had his own.

Wine, purchased at the local grocery, brought the cost of the meal to less than $35. . .and we've had leftovers for two lunches.

We followed the advice of local columnists at The Honolulu Advertiser ( tried Happy Hour at the Sheraton Hotel's RumFire; a place with million dollar views and great Happy Hour prices ($3 draft beer, $5 wine and $5 mai tai) Pupu's were of gourmet quality and greatly reduced during the 4 p.m. - 6 p.m. daily Happy Hour.

Waikiki's Freebie Finds

Not long ago friends seemed surprised when we suggested they give Waikiki a try instead of flying to an outer island. They questioned cost and what they might find to do. . .hotel prices don't get much better than they are now and as for things to do, the place is abuzz with freebie finds. Friday nights there is a fireworks show out over the Waikiki waterfront that matches those we know as Fourth of July extravaganzas in Seattle. We watched from our room while others gathered along the beach.

Saturday night we caught the tail end of the free hula show that takes place four evenings a week on Prince Kuhio Beach (adjacent to Waikiki Beach)

Sunday we happened to be here during the 25th Annual Ala Wai Canal Canoe Races, sponsored by the Waikiki Community Association. Ala Wai, is two blocks back from Waikiki. At other times it is fun just to watch canoes out on the canal. That afternoon we happened upon a band concert at the Pavilion at Kapi'olani Park, only two blocks from Prince Kuhio Beach.
The local paper, The Honolulu Advertiser, is a great source for daily information on lectures, tours and activities going on about town

Sunday, January 24, 2010

On Deck in Honolulu

Our deck, mentioned in yesterday's post, made reference to it being the best dining venue in town. In truth, we are spending most waking moments here when 'in our room' . The sun peeks around Diamond Head about 7:15 a.m. - a perfect scene to start each day. With Diamond Head over our left shoulderas we sip morning coffee (Hawaiian, of course) and read the paper.

The deck provides us a great viewing stand to watch both water and beach activities that take place from morning to night. We have the Marriott to the left, the Catholic Church and Foster Tower to our front -- just slightly interferring with our otherwise panoramic view over Waikiki.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

A toast to the tropics. . .

There is something about a glass of wine at sunset in the tropics that can't be matched anywhere else on earth. We toasted our arrival at the Outrigger Canoe Club, a Honolulu institution since its founding in 1908.

Palm trees swayed, the sky moved from its cloudless blue to gold and pinks as we ended our first day on the island. Temperatures have been in the low- to mid-80's with a 'cold spell' expected to drop them into the high 70's today and this evening (I know, none of you mainlanders have any sympathy for suffering through such temperature drops here).

Our room at the Hilton provides a sweeping view from Diamond Head out over Kuhio Beach. We had wondered what a $99 rate would get us: 31st floor, six from the top and our deck provides the best deck dining venue in town. More on that next blog.

For those armchair travelers out there who want to envision yourself here, I suggest you try
KINE FM turn up your computer's sound, stand up and do a little hula.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Heading to Honolulu

It's mid-January in Puget Sound: gray and rainy, most days. And there are good deals to be had in Hawaii. With that combination, it should be no surprise that our bags are packed and by the end of the week we will be in Waikiki soaking up the sun, basking in 80-degree temperatures taking long walks on sandy beaches under a canopy of swaying palms.

As I noted in a November blog (Honolulu: Surf's Up and prices down), Joel, the researcher half of this travel duo, found an incredibly good rate: $99 a night for ocean-front room at Hilton's Prince Kuhio in the heart of Waikiki. The hotel is a block back from the famed beach and two blocks from Kapiolani Park. We noted this weekend the prices have gone up considerably since we booked it.

The good news is that for those who didn't nab a room back then, the deals are still out there. We saw a big spread on O'ahu today that offered Endless Escapes at Starwood properties starting at $119 and a 99 days of Winter sale at Aqua Resorts with prices at $99 or less per night at their participating Waikiki hotels.

Developers and property owners have put more than $2 billion into the Waikiki neighborhood in recent years. The end results are new upscale restaurants, shopping malls filled with high end stores, rennovated historic hotels and a beautiful beach walk. It has become one of our favorite spots in all of the Hawaiian Islands.

If you can't take advantage of the deals, mix yourself a mai-tai, put on a floral shirt and stay tuned. For the next few weeks we will take you with us as we head to our favorite off-the-beaten-track finds. Aloha!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

'Snow" Place like Washington

Snow was again falling in Washington State's Cascade Mountains this week. Ski areas are reporting base accumulations of significant depths. I am not into any form of skiing and Joel gave up downhill years ago. I tried snowshoeing once and took a header into a snowbank when I stepped on the left shoe with the right. I've given up on those activities that require skill and coordination opting instead for those old-fashioned, bell-jingling, nose-tingling horse drawn sleigh rides. I wrote about them in an article appearing in today's Seattle Times.

And for those who do ski, the Times has the latest information on conditions at popular Northwest ski areas in Washington, Oregon and Idaho; just to the side of the article under 'snow sports information' link.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Vegas: A 'Wynn-ing' Combination

"Vegas? I went there once. . .
it was, well,
. . .dirty
. . .dark
. . .smokey."

Fill in the blank.

That's the response from three different acquaintences to our recent stay there. Each paused and added though, "Oh, I was there about 20 years ago."

If you've not been there in the last couple decades, you might give Vegas a try. Sure. . .the touts still click their girlie tabs along The Strip at certain times during the day, but you'll likely find that Vegas is a rather classy place these days.

For starters, Nevada has a no smoking law (casinos are exempt, but even some of them limit smoking to areas of play with smoke free corridors). Our Wynn room pictured here was a non-smoking on the 38th floor with wide sweeping views stretching from The Strip over the valley to snow tipped hills in the distance. Smokers have their own floors.

Using our favorite resort as an example of what you will find: we window-shopped in Hermes where a men's leather belt had a $900 price tag and at Rolex where watches in one display ranged from $70,000 to $100,000. In between the two shopping wings housing those stores - and others like them - was the casino where I happily spent hours over the course of our stay at my favorite penny slot machine, betting 18-cents each time and taking home a profit of 53-cents. Developers have created a Wynn-ing combination of extremes for the vastly diverse clientele they serve.

Down the road at Bellagio there's a great display of Dale Chihuly's glass creations adorning the registration area and only a few steps away you can walk through their seasonally-inspired garden that brings squeals of delight from children as animated creatures among the floral arrangement come to life. Bellagio also has an art gallery.

Even the city bus, The Duece, that transports tourists and locals alike between The Strip and downtown's Fremont Street, is a classy, clean double-decker vehicle these days.

We've checked and there seems to be hotel deals to be had this spring even at the 5-star places. To a certain extent all travel is a gamble. . .but we think Vegas is a winner.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

More 'Novel' Destinations

I've said before, we think the research is half the fun of the trip, so in preparation of our upcoming trip to Hawaii, we've dug out some of our favorite novels to get us thinking about sun, sand, sea and swaying palm trees. Among our favorite reads: Stories of Hawaii by Jack London, a collection of short stories he wrote as result of his five-month stay in 1907 and subsequent trips in 1915 and 1916.

Another favorite that kept us laughing is Hotel Honolulu by Paul Theroux -- this is one you either love or hate, as this noted writer tells the tale of a down-and-out writer who becomes manager of the fictional Hotel Honolulu (actually it reminds us both of the places we stayed decades ago just out of college).

Last year a wise publisher began re-issuing the six books that make up Earl Derr Biggers' Charlie Chan mystery series, about the charming Honolulu detective who quickly won our hearts after reading the first book. Trying to make them last as long as possible, we are just reading our third, this one, "The Black Camel" - which was made into a movie in 1931.

Honolulu Stories, Two Centuries of Writing, a tome of more than 1,000 pages, edited by Gavan Daws and Bennett Hymer, is both a history book and a collection of beautiful poetry, lyrics, and stories. We found it at a Costco in Honolulu and debated the wisdom of buying such a bulky, weighty book. . .it is such a treasure we haven't regretted succumbing to its call.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

CityCenter Las Vegas - Stark and Dark

Developers of CityCenter, (the expansive 18 million square feet of development on 67 acres between the Bellagio and Monte Carlo on Las Vegas Blvd.) have drawn such rave reviews since it opened in mid-December that we considered staying here on our recent trip instead of the tried-and-true Wynn, at the other end of the Strip.
Instead, we opted to visit the development on a scouting expedition for 'next time'. While we prefer to try new places, sometimes it pays to visit a place first before committing to a stay. Such was the case with CityCenter.

Finding the tram from the Bellagio took us to the far reaches of the hotel into its convention meeting room wing - it is not a walk for everyone. Our return, walking along Las Vegas Blvd., seemed shorter. The tram - seeming as if it had arrived from the Jetsons television series -- deposited us at the stark, white Crystals station. (For those younger readers: George and Wilma Jetson, living far off in the future's 'outer space world' were the cartoon stars of an early 60's era television series).

Crystals, while drawing rave architectural reviews, is an enormous multi-storied, angular enclave of jutting white walls, and vast open spaces and home to high-end stores. It is an area so vast and stark that glitzy storefronts seemed tucked away in its angles. We joked that at any moment, George or Wilma would emerge from behind one of the many big blank walls.

The Aria, with its 4,000 rooms and casino left us wondering again about the architectural accolaides this place is receiving. The long reservations desk put us in mind of train station counters in Europe. The lobby was certainly not a place I would lounge while waiting for a flight as the 'couches' were rock benches with wooden backs, reminding one of the benches found in Washington's forests. And it felt like sitting on a rock with a wooden back. The casino, to the side of the lobby, was dark, with low ceilings, a stark contrast to the cavernous lobby.

As we discussed adjectives to use in this post, Joel commented, "If I were designing purgatory, I would start here." Admittedly the development only opened a few weeks ago, and perhaps there are plans to soften the stark walls of Crystals and hopefully fill it with a bit more activity and sense of life. And web photos of the rooms in Aria make them appear quite comfortable - but I am not sure we will be rushing to find out at any time in the near future.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Havin' a 'Bowl' in Vegas!

We are simply having a 'bowl' in Las Vegas! Football fans everywhere need to keep this place in mind during football 'bowl' week. We've been here for the Fiesta, Orange, and GMAC Bowls. We watched the Fiesta Bowl in the comfort of the Sports Book bar at the Wynn (where we are staying). To one side of us, there two Longhorn fans ("Hook 'em Horns") cheering for TCU and on the other grandparents of a TCU student. Three big screen tvs, and some 30 flat screens wallpapered the walls. Great seats, great conversation and a great win. . .for us: Boise State Broncos won the game. (Yes, another plus, is that you can bet on the games - and yes, we bet on the Broncos.)
Last night we watched the Orange Bowl at First, a restaurant and bar at the Palazzo, just across Sands Avenue from Wynn. We have also had a chance to visit with some of the dozens of Alabama Crimson Tide and Texas Longhorn fans who are working their way toward tomorrow's Bowl Championship game being played in the Rose Bowl, Pasedena. One of the 'Tide' fans told us he was among 20 on a small fan bus heading that direction tomorrow and he'd heard another five large buses would be leaving here as well.

And when not watching football?

Well there is the Fashion Show Mall just across Las Vegas Blvd. Pedestrian overhead walkways make it a snap to get across the streets that are always a buzz with tour buses, cars and taxis.
And then of course, in 60-degree sunshine, we can't let the afternoons get past without a bit of time sunning at poolside.


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