Sunday, February 28, 2010

Ridin' the Rail to Seatac Airport

Getting to Seatac Airport from downtown Seattle has been easier -- and cheaper -- since the Airport light rail station opened in December. Operated by Sound Transit Link Light Rail takes you from Westlake Center in downtown Seattle to the airport in 37 minutes. There are 10 stations along the route including stops in the International District, Pioneer Square and at the Stadium.

One-way adult fares are $2.50 and youth ages 6 -18 are $2. (Keep your ticket handy to show to a Fare Inspector on board). Tickets can be purchased from vending machines at the station that work much like automated bank teller or parking ticket machines.

Passengers need only walk from the airport staion along a covered, lighted, level walkway on the mezzanine level to the terminal. At Westlake Center's transit hub connections can be made to buses. Or most hotels are within a few blocks of the station.

After arriving home from Hawaii, we took a taxi home, slightly over 20 miles from the airport and the fare with tip was $61. Next time using Light Rail and connecting to the Metro bus, the cost per person will be $4.50 or $9 for the trip.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Madeira Memories: Ribeira Brava

Clean up efforts are underway on Madeira, the Portuguese island off the coast of Northern African that was unexpectedly struck by deadly flooding on Saturday. Reports say that a month's worth of rain fell in eight hours, causing deadly mudslides and turning the artistic roadways into riverbeds. Among the hardest hit were Funchal, the cruise ship port and Ribeira Brava (pictured in this post) along the south side of the island.

Clean up is underway in those areas and Madeiran tourism officials are reporting that hotels on the north side of the island are operating and the airport is open. The same officials are saying that those who are planning to visit are being encouraged to do so. A good source of information about Madeira is Madeira Live.
[The photos above were taken during a one-day stop in Funchal last April; our first land stop after a week-long Atlantic Ocean crossing on a Holland America repositioning cruise. With no set plans for our day, we hopped a local bus and visited Ribeira Brava. The roadway wound around steep hillsides and we lost count of the numbers of hairpin turns and tunnels we experienced to reach the charming little town. Top photo is from the bus as we set out and second is Ribeira Brava.]

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Hidden fees. . .does the buck stop here?

While booking a Hertz rental car for an upcoming road trip from Santa Barbara, California to Las Vegas, Nevada we were pleased to see that we would earn Alaska Airlines frequent flier miles.

As we read further we learned they do award points . . .for a price. Persons renting cars in the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico are subject to a frequent flyer surcharge of 75-cents a day up to $5.25 per rental in order to be awarded those points. Now admittedly the amount it isn't astronomical. . .but let's see, don't they call those programs 'award' or 'loyalty' programs? Maybe they should be called Pay-for-Points programs?

With auto reserved (likely without those points), the research turned to accommodations. We are considering a stay near the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation area some 20 minutes outside Las Vegas. So, using our favorite site, Expedia, we found several possibilities including what seemed to be a good deal at the high-end Red Rock Casino Resort and Spa. Rooms rates were listed at $130 a night; admittedly, that's for a view toward The Strip, not of those nearby striking red rocks, but still, an okay price for this glitzy hotel. Reading through the rules we found it's $130 plus hotel fees of $24.99 a night, bringing the real price to $155 a night. Had they just said so, we may have booked it. Their additional 'fee' killed the deal.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Funchal, Madeira - 'a Ghost Town'

Our thoughts and prayers go out to the residents of Madeira, the Atlantic island several hundred miles off the African coast, that has long been a popular stop for ships crossing the Atlantic. We've been fortunate to visit Funchal - one of our favorite ports of call - three times on cruises in recent years. The photos on this post were taken during our most recent visit in April 2009.

The BBC and MSNBC tonight are reporting the town of Funchal -- as well as other towns on the island -- were hit today with severe flooding resulting from a rainstorm with unexpected severity. Initial reports are estimating more than 20 persons killed and dozens injured. Their beautifully patterned black and white cobblestone streets are covered with mudslides and overturned cars are strewn about. A witness told the BBC that Funchal is 'a ghost town'.
We know all the cruise enthusiasts who've visited Madeira share our concern for the lovely people who have welcomed us over the years to their postcard-like garden island. We all will continue to monitor the events there with great sadness.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Hula Babe and Beach Boy Moonwalk

While Michael Jackson will forever be the world's moonwalking king, Hula Babe and Beach Boy did their own version several times just down the beach from our place at Ko Olina. You'll never see our fancy footwork on You Tube, still photos will have to suffice.

We spent hours exploring tidal pools found on this faux-lunar surface. Each pool had its own community of small fish and other little creatures. Flat, white-sand beaches were nearby but didn't hold quite the entertainment options of our lunar explorations. A few times we saw families also exploring the area and for the little ones the place was a Thriller.

Our favorite spots were just north of the J.W. Marriott property and south from Lagoon Four on Ko Olina's site, near the entry to the Marina. You explore at your own risk, the signs are posted. . .but then isn't that what you do with any travel experience?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Dealing with Pickpockets

Last fall Joel was targeted by pickpockets minutes into the train trip into Athens from Piraeus, its nearby port city. A theft that took only seconds to accomplish provided a lengthy aftermath, one in which we believe was finally completed two months after the theft. We remain on alert for any irregularities.

We consider ourselves seasoned travelers who are alert to such attacks, but today's sophisticated pickpockets still outwitted us. Our initial disbelief turned quickly to frustration which only intensified as we worked our way through the process of canceling various plastics and a race to the cash machine to obtain enough Euro's to carry us through the rest of the trip without those plastics.

We had taken many of the precautions I've listed below; but we hadn't quite been diligent enough. Hindsight is 20-20 and this is what we we will be doing in the future and offer as suggestions to others:

Before leaving home:

1. Register your foreign destinations with your bank's credit card fraud department. All it takes is a phone call.

2. Determine how the bank will contact you about suspicious card activity if you will not be available by phone during your travels. Have either the fraud department or customer service department, explain how they will contact you if they put a hold on your card while you are traveling. Then call them back, talk with a different person, and make sure that your record clearly states how they will reach you.

  • During one of our trips, we were assured by a woman in the fraud department where we had registered our travel that we would be contacted by email -- she read the email address back to me for accuracy -- before putting a hold on an account. They didn't. But when we arrived home we found three automated messages on our answering machine telling us a hold had been placed on the account and advising us to call immediately. We didn't get that message in Paris.

  • I did call the fraud department immediately and talked with a representative who told me the fraud department would never email; only customer service can generate emails and apologized for the inconvenience. (Luckily we still had enough cash to get us to the airport).

3. Record your card numbers, security codes and expiration dates and then keep those with bank phone numbers in a separate but secure place as you travel.

4. Double check those customer service phone numbers printed on the back of your card BEFORE you leave home. The replacement card sent to us after our return last fall still has imprinted on it the numbers that are no longer working. Because we had a computer - and in room web access - we could look up the bank's web site and got correct numbers; all of which took valuable time at a time when 'time was of the essence'.

While traveling:

1. Pickpockets come in every shape and size. Well-behaved looking children to dressed-for-success-adults are as likely to swipe your belongings as is the person who may look like a vagrant in search of money.

2. Travel defensively - that doesn't mean be rude, it means don't always be polite. If someone repeatedly prevents you from moving out of congested doorwells of Metro trains, buses, or waiting areas to less congested areas, force your way past them if need be.

3. Be aware of your surroundings: keep an eye on those around you. Does someone seem to be watching you? Are they repeatedly looking at your bags? Did you feel a brush against a leg or bag? Do they seem to be doing a visual scan of your body? Are they speaking into cell phones? It could be they are talking to 'teammates' planning their strike and getaway. [Don't be paranoid about it, as not everyone who looks at you or who speaks into a cell phone is a pickpocket - just be aware of those around you.]

4. Use a money belt or other means of securing your money and passport and credit cards to you in a manner that it would be impossible to reach even with the most sophisticated wires and hooks.

5. Split your cash and credit cards, don't carry all in one place.

6. Wear shoulder bags to the inside when walking on crowded sidewalks and streets. This will keep theives on bikes and motorcycles from coming up behind you and making off with your bag.

7. Don't look and act like a tourist. . .if you are trying to read your guide book or your camera is hanging from your neck. . .you look like a tourist. Suitcases, shoulder bags or backpacks are red flags - keep them in front of you, with your arms around them when squished into jam-packed public transportation. It is a snap to slash the bottom of a backpack and make away with your belongings before you even realize you were targeted.

8. Read up on your destinations. Most travel books and web sites include information about safety and safeguards you can take.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Ko Olina: Our '401V'

A friend's question, ended as a comment, "You bought a timeshare?"!!
"Well, no. . ." I answered, "We bought a piece of paradise." That's how the salesperson described it. In fact, she said, we had invested our funds in a '401V'. Others invest in 401K's to assure retirement funds and she said our purchase was a mere investment assuring us vacations for as long as we are able to travel.

Among those not familiar with timeshares, the word itself seems to be a bit of hesitation - I know, as we felt the same way before our purchase of one week at Marriott's Ko Olina Beach Club.

It is a logical solution for this travel-minded couple who have always fantasized about owning a home on a tropical island but who see a vacation home as only doubling the roots and responsibilities; a conflict of interest for we vagabonds. We no longer want to be committed to one destination.

Our purchase is deeded property (some other timeshares are sold using a points/use system); a two-bedroom 'lock-off' unit, meaning we can stay for two-weeks. One week is in a studio unit and the other is in a larger one-bedroom full-size condo type unit. A smart selling point on the part of the Marriott group.

This year we treated it as our second home. We didn't participate in any of the resort's planned activities (think cruise ship sized list of things to keep one occupied). Instead we pretty much lived as we do in Kirkland: prepared meals at home, used the exercise facility, took out garbage and made the beds. Free in-room computer access (another good selling point) and our cell phone allowed us to telecommute as needed.
As owners we received a once-a-week 'tidy' service which provided fresh towels, additional garbage removel and a kitchen tidy. We could have opted for full-blown maid service for an additional cost (those renting units receive maid service much like a hotel).

The 80-degree weather allowed for barbecues in January and the communal, cleaned-daily banks of gas barbecues provided another avenue for social time as we visited with other guests making the most of the outdoor cooking stations.

Grocery shopping -- a task I find most dreary in Kirkland -- was made fun at Don Quijote, just down the road in Waipahu town. This DQ was jam-packed with the same grocery items as found on the mainland but had huge selections of Asian and Hawaiian foods as well. Various types of kim chee, the spicey Korean food became a staple. And even enjoyed our trips to the recently opened Costco in Kapolei town where you can purchase any thing from surfboards,to packaged lau-lau and Aloha shirts.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Whale Tales: A sunset hula

As Hula Babe and Beach Boy (that would be us) head toward the end of our stay here, Mother Nature decided that we needed some unforgettable moments yesterday; the types that guarantee we will be booking our 2011 stay before we leave this paradise on Friday.

We were among the guests who flocked to the lagoons and gardens to watch close-up the spectacular big waves that plummetted our Western coast all day yesterday. The four man-made lagoons that dot the property remained protected with only a stronger than usual pull and push of the water from the external wave action. A recent jellyfish warning issued for several of O'ahu's beaches didn't discourage any of us from enjoying that gentle lagoon while the sun took temperatures to 82-degrees. The waves were so spectacular that the books we planned to read on the beach were tucked away for later and attention was focused on the Pacific waters.

I've written about seeing whales from our deck. That means that we have seen passing numbers of whales spouting in the waters in front of the development. However, last night a crowd-stopping show took place between the Vacation Club and the J.W. Marriott when two whales began a sunset hula, leaping out of the water and slapping tails -- torsos up, tail up, swing, sway and disappear. Travel often affords us moments of magic - yesterday, it seemed, was one magical moment from start to finish.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Kung Hee Fat Choy! Happy New Year!

Kung Hee Fat Choy - The Year of the Tiger! Chinese New Year celebrations have been underway since we arrived here nearly three weeks ago. They culminate this weekend when the old lunar year gives way to the new on February 14th. Local media have announced festivals, food events and beauty pageants as part of the celebration. Among the most spectacular is the traditional Lion Dance which is being performed around the island through Feb. 27th.

Among suggestions offered for celebrating the New Year are: wear something red (Chinese legend says that color scares away evil spirits); watch a Lion's Dance; buy some trinkets and give to friends - gift giving is a big part of the celebration; find a fireworks display - also big in the celebration.

This year with Valentine's Day and Chinese New Year celebrations falling on the same day, O'ahu has so many restaurant specials, getaway specials and celebrations that it would be hard to choose just one - unfortunately, we timed our return to Kirkland not following the Chinese calendar and will miss the weekend's festivities.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Top's Down, Surf's Up: On the Road in O'ahu

We put the top down, cranked up the Hawaiian tunes and headed out to explore O'ahu the other day. Enterprise Rent-a-Car made us another one of those incredible deals: $5 a day extra and we went from a cramped little econo model to wheels that make us decades younger when that top snaps into the trunk. Wind in the hair, sun on the face and we headed out to Hale'iwa (hall-eh-E-va), on the island's North Shore. The town,once a popular resort area in the early 1900's, is considered a Surfing Capital these days.
Had a Hawaiian breakfast - eggs, rice and Portuguese sausage - at a great little place, Kono's, and watched pickup truck loads of surfer boys and boards go past traveling from one beach to another.

Then continued around the island past Turtle Bay Resort and its expansive golf course to Kahuku, the place known for its Shrimp Trucks that line the roadway, grilling up shrimp that is served on paper plates and eaten at picnic tables along gravel parking lots. Heard a woman the other day in the hot tub speculating on the 'cleanliness' of such places. . .that silly wahine. . .they serve some of the the most mouth-watering meals we've ever eaten on O'ahu.

We drove for miles with the Wai'anae and Ko'olau mountain ranges to one side and ocean shore to the other. Didn't make it all the way around the island; so caught H-3, the freeway with an incredibly long, long tunnel through the mountain range and headed back to Ko Olina. Total travel time less than four hours.

Monday, February 8, 2010

O'ahu is more than Honolulu

If you envision this map as the face of a clock, our Ko Olina is on the lower left hand side just about 8 and Honolulu is down at the bottom in the big bay about 5 - 6. Tourist maps advise it is 90 miles to drive around the island; noting that the point on the top left of the map doesn't have a road, there you would need to hike from Yokohama Bay at the end of Farrington Highway through Ka'ena State Park and around to the north side which would bring you into Dillingham Airfield and Gliderport. We haven't been that ambitious this trip. (Double clicking the photo will enlarge it)

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Ko Olina Resort and Marina, O'ahu

I've focused on the Marriott Vacation Club but want to clarify that Ko Olina is much more than Marriott. Ko Olina Resort and Marina is a multi-project development with free standing vacation homes, full ownership condo's, an 18-hole golf course, a J.W. Marriott Ilihani and a marina. Soon Disney will be opening an enormous 21-acre vacation complex located on the beach between the J.W. and the Marriott Vacation Club.
Last January ground had barely been broken on the Disney facility and this year the structural steel is giving a sneak preview of the resort that will follow. Aulani, 'the place that speaks with deep messages' is not like other Disney properties as it isn't associated with a major theme park. Plans are to open the resort -- with 360 hotel rooms and 481 two-bedroom units like those in other Disney Vacation Club properties -- in the fall of 2011.

Our 'home', Marriott's Ko Olina Beach Club last January had slowed completion of its third building Nai'a; one wing is now open and is where we spent our first week. Talk is that the second wing will open Jan. 2011. Construction on the fourth building is to begin in 2012 with completion slated for 2015.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Hula Babe and Beach Boy

Thursday afternoon marked the end of our first two weeks on O'ahu. We had spent the afternoon first at poolside and then at the lagoon beach reading and sunning. We raced back to the room to grab a brewskie and return to beachside for sunset when I remembered I had some not-yet-done dinner prep work to do. And yes, this photo was sunset.

I checked my watch and realized I had been wearing it for sometime upside down; the 6 where the 12 should be. . .you get the idea. Then as I was chopping garlic I had a second realization that I was preparing dinner in my swimsuit; but after a while on an island it seems quite normal for both culinary swim wear and upside down watches.

A few weeks ago my cousin directed me to a blog site of a woman who calls herself Pioneer Woman. I decided that we too could have different, more appropriate names for ourselves while writing from the tropics. So for the week that remains -- we will be Hula Babe and Beach Boy.

Hula Babe quit putting on eyeliner the second day in Honolulu, the mascara was left somewhat far behind a week or so ago and lipstick, ha, lipsticks in various shades haven't come out of the cosmetics bags. Sun screen and lip gloss are beauty products of choice. Beach Boy simply strips off the shirt and puts on the shades anytime he nears sand which is most of the time during the waking day.

We moved today to the larger one-bedroom unit, a snap of a move that now has us facing the ocean -a perfect place to watch for whales. Yesterday they frolicked for hours in the water in front of the lagoon, we are hoping for their return today. With that the upside down watch says it is beach time. . .aloha!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Timeshare Tales

We remarked today that being around timeshare owners is like being on a cruise ship with cruising enthusiasts, you talk about the best destinations and the best deals to be found. Timeshare talk, whether at poolside, in the hot tub or at the bar usually ends up focusing on timeshare resorts, trades, travel and again the best deals to be had.

Now 'best' can be defined a number of different ways: one is buying direct from one of the famous 90-minute sales pitches that at least in our case earned us a bizzillion Marriott points back three years ago and as I mentioned earlier, entry into 'the Marriott family" or ohana, as we call ourselves around Ko Olina. For others 'best' means a good deal or low price.

Many folks we've met own many weeks at various resorts and are sold on the timeshare concept (disclaimer: it isn't for everyone) and we've learned that many have purchased their weeks on the resale market at considerably less than they could on the primary market. Now in the midst of our third stay here we are also considering purchasing another week somewhere and have had a number of web sites recommended to us. Among those recommended sites are: and Timeshare Users Group If anyone out there has other suggestions, let us know. . .we will share them with others in the hot tub or sipping a beverage.

Hawaii Timeshare Tales

We weren't sure we would like the timeshare concept three years ago when we booked one of those five night and free car introductory packages here. We also questioned whether or not we would find it 'boring' out here some 30 minutes (in good traffic) from Honolulu.

We went to the 90-minute sales presentation with the intent of getting the Marriott bonus points they offered as an attendance reward. We ended up with the points - and a week of ownership here.

This trip is our second as full-fledged owners - and we have yet to find it boring. We've found timeshare life to be like having a second home only we don't have to worry about those pesky maintenance tasks of homeownership. We pay the annual maintenance fee and then enjoy the maid 'tidy' service mid week and watch the gardeners grooming 'our' acreas of landscaped grounds and maintenance taking care of pools and hot tubs.

It is somewhat like playing house because you can cook and wash dishes and make your beds, but the serious cleaning is done by others leaving the day free for reading books, exploring, exercising, lazing at the pool or beach or soaking in the hot tub.

We spent a good deal of two afternoons just beyond the resort, an easy one mile walk that leads to a small crescent sandy beach and dozens of tidal pools in the lava rock that borders the beach. site. Watching any number of varieties of tropical fish in this pond while mongeese played chase on the nearby rocks and a large green sea turtle swam with snorkelers just off shore is far more fun than doing housework anyday.


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