Five Nights in Paradise
Our Wonderful Vacation to Mauritius

Every year, Angela and I try to take at least one vacation where I don’t work at all; a true break from the craziness of day-to-day life and the stress that comes with it. This year, we were lucky enough to go, literally, halfway around the world for the most amazing tropical getaway I can imagine.

Why Mauritius?

This trip was the result of an opportunity. Last year, I found the FlyerTalk Premium Fare Deals forum and started checking it every morning for a couple of minutes to see if anything really great had popped up. One day, I saw a deal appear that seemed almost too good to be true. The gist of it was round trip business class tickets from Chicago to Mauritius via Europe for less than $2,500 per person. The catch was that booking had to be done through an OTA, like Expedia, and a hotel night had to be bundled with your airfare.

I thought about it for a day and then decided to check if the deal was still active for dates that worked for us. It was, with one-stop in either Amsterdam or Paris in either direction. I ended up finding itineraries that priced out at approximately $2,400 per person with a bundled night at some tiny little hostel that cost $49. I priced out the itinerary separate from the deal and it would have cost $8,600 per person. Given the opportunity, and the fact that I didn’t think I’d ever see anything like this again, I jumped in with both feet and didn’t look back.

Getting to Mauritius

Like most good flight deals, this one departed from a specific set of points. In this case, you could leave from either Chicago or Washington, DC. We’re more familiar with Chicago so we decided to depart from O’Hare airport.

Given that we live in Las Vegas, that meant we had to position to Chicago in order to leave on the flight we actually wanted to be on. We had done this a few times previously, positioning to Chicago for our trip to Egypt and positioning to Seattle for our last trip to Paris. For this particular itinerary, I decided to book us overnights in Chicago on either end to account for any weather delays (or other unfortunate circumstances). I didn’t want us to lose the deal of a lifetime because our positioning flight was delayed.

For our positioning flights, we chose to fly Southwest because I have the companion pass (which means I only pay $11.20 roundtrip for Angela to fly anywhere in the United States with me) and all flights include two checked bags. Southwest only flies to Midway in Chicago so we have to change airports when we arrive. It’s fairly easy to do via the orange and blue lines and only takes about 90 minutes to go from one airport to the other. As I said previously, though, we decided to overnight in Chicago on this trip to take the edge off.

A few nights at The Gwen

For our overnights, I decided to use two free night certificates that I had earned from SPG due to a promotion they targeted me for earlier this year. The certificates were valid at any Category 5 or below hotel and, given that all SPG hotels in and around Chicago are Category 5 or below, I had the pick of any of them!

I had heard really great things about The Gwen so I decided to use one certificate on either end of the trip.

To be honest, the property was a bit of a disappointment. My status with SPG was not mentioned at check-in, we were upgraded to a room with a view of Grand Avenue rather than Michigan Avenue (which I’d say is probably a downgrade, honestly), and the breakfast, which I picked as my SPG Platinum perk, was a pastry and juice or $10 credit towards another item (per person).

It wasn’t all bad, though. The rooms were nicely decorated and the bedding was clean and comfortable. For overnights on either end of a trip, it was fine. I’m extremely happy I didn’t have to pay room rates, though, and would have been upset with my experience if I had. And, of course, we got to spend time in a city that we both love and that means a lot to us.

Chicago to Amsterdam

Our first flight was on a KLM 747-400 from ORD to AMS. I was particularly excited for this flight because I had chosen us the seats all the way in the nose of the plane. In addition, I’ve come to love flying in and out of O’Hare – it is simple to navigate and has some decent lounge options and art installations.

Our experience on this flight was quite good. The service was polite, but not overly attentive. After the initial meal service, I hardly saw our flight attendant. Angela enjoyed KLM’s signature cocktail, the Flying Dutchman, and I got to experience the flight attendant laughing when I ordered a virgin Cosmo.

I liked flying in the nose as it felt even more private than other business class flights we’ve taken. When you can’t see any other passengers in front of you, it almost feels like you’re flying by yourself. Be warned, if you fly in the nose of the 747, it sounds like the world is ending when the nose gear retracts – I was glad that I was aware of this and had warned Angela as well.

Our long layover in Amsterdam

We arrived in Amsterdam early in the morning and were off the plane with our carry-on luggage in a few minutes. We cleared immigration and customs quickly and were out in the greater airport shortly thereafter. There is a train that runs direct from the airport to the city center, so we purchased tickets from an automated kiosk and headed towards the platform. We only realized that we were supposed to scan our tickets at an entry pole once we took the escalator down to the train. We went back up the escalator, scanned our tickets, and headed back down.

Our train departed almost immediately and twenty minutes later we were stepping off at Amsterdam’s city center station. I had specifically not planned to do anything other than stretch our legs over the course of our 11 hour layover, so we started walking around the city pretty much immediately.

We visited the central plaza, Dam, and snapped a few pictures of the Royal Palace before heading off to walk down the famous canals. We stopped and enjoyed the early morning peace on a small bench looking over one of the canals and witnessed an impromptu duck fight club.

After relaxing for a while, we headed off to an extremely large park in the city named Vondelpark. The enormity of the green space became apparent as we walked through it for quite some time without ever reaching the end. In fact, we spent much of the rest of the day lounging on benches, people and dog watching, and just enjoying the peace that comes with knowing you don’t have anything you have to do.

After exiting the park, we went to a local burger restaurant recommended by a Dutch friend of a friend, Lombardo’s, to grab a quick bite. After polishing off a couple of delicious burgers, we found a few coffee shops (serving coffee and baked goods, not drugs) to relax at before heading back to the airport.

Before we knew it, we were back on the train to AMS and ready to continue on our way to Mauritius. We relaxed in the KLM lounge for a while before our flight and were struck by two things. First, there was an issue with getting us into the lounge because our Air Mauritius boarding passes were not validating in their system. Second, the food was extremely limited in scope (although there was quite a bit of alcohol if you’re a drinker).

Amsterdam to Mauritius

From AMS to MRU we flew on Air Mauritius’s A340. If I could plan this trip again, I would have paid the extra $100 per person for a short connection in Paris to avoid this plane. It was definitely the least comfortable business class seat I’ve ever sat in and I really struggled to get any rest on the 12 hour flight to the southeast coast of Africa.

While the seat was subpar, the service was prompt, attentive, and friendly. The food was good, except for a beetroot mousse that was one of the worst things I’ve ever eaten. The only complaint I really have about the soft product on this flight is that they served instant coffee rather than brewed. I love my coffee and instant coffee is such a drag – even on a plane. Angela fell in love with Mauritius vanilla tea on this flight, though.

The flight was fairly smooth and I nodded off a few times, even with the uncomfortable seat. Before I knew it, we were making our descent into Mauritius and admiring the beautiful greenery of the island. The immigration and customs process in Mauritius was straightforward, although we did have to provide proof of an exit ticket and submit a health questionnaire and answer questions about our previous travels.

We were quickly greeted by the car company that our hotel had arranged to take us to our resort for the next five nights. The drive was a winding one, taking us through acres of sugarcane fields, past the small towns that dot the landscape, and fishing villages along the coast. The Indian Ocean was a vibrant blue as we rounded a corner to drive past Le Morne Brabant mountain and journey the final few miles to the St. Regis.

St. Regis Mauritius – an exceptional resort in every way

For this trip, we stayed at the St. Regis Mauritius. Our experience was amazing. I don’t have as much experience with the top-tier of luxury as some people do (and definitely not as much as the travel bloggers we all read), but I can’t imagine how I could have been any happier with the stay. I am SPG Platinum because of a Marriott status challenge earlier this year, and I think that helped make our stay great.

I booked a Bed & Breakfast cash rate in a Beachfront Junior Suite for this stay. Surprisingly, the room rate was less than we’ve paid for a mid-tier hotel room in San Francisco during some of my business travel.

We had great service before our stay – I reached out the to the concierge to book transport to and from the resort to the airport on either end of our trip and to and from the helipad for our helicopter tour. I had the worst time getting the helicopter tour company to actually respond to me – I emailed them five times, reached out via Twitter, and called every one of the offices three times each and never got a hold of someone. Eventually, in desperation a few days before our trip, I asked the concierge to try to get someone to respond to me and they did.

On check-in we were upgraded to a Beachfront St. Regis Grand Suite, most likely because it is currently low season. The bed was extremely comfortable, but the best part about it was that we were fifteen steps away from lounge chairs on the beautiful beach. We, admittedly, didn’t spend a ton of time in the room but loved having a large terrace to take our coffee on in the morning. The bathtub in the room was enormous, easily fitting two people.

We availed ourselves of the fitness room twice and, surprisingly, it was pretty well equipped. There were adequate free weights for a meaningful weight lifting workout as well as a solid selection of machines. Olympic barbells are always a pleasant surprise at a hotel.

The property also had quite a few common spaces that were quite nice, although we admittedly didn’t spend any appreciable time in them.

All the food I ever wanted

The first morning at the resort we ate buffet breakfast at Le Manoir and it was delicious. There was an egg station along with a wide variety of foods on the buffet. We received a note in our room later that day that we were entitled to enjoy a la carte breakfast at The Boathouse Restaurant on the beach because of my status. Breakfast at The Boathouse was absolutely amazing so if you are planning to visit here, I’d recommend trying to reach Marriott Platinum status before arriving. Every morning we’d sit about one hundred feet from the ocean and enjoy delicious steak and eggs, crepes, French toast, and espresso drinks. We definitely got our fill and didn’t need to eat again until dinner.

Speaking of dinner, we ate at four of the five restaurants on property: Le Manoir, Simply India, Floating Market, and The Boathouse. All were delicious in their own way, and I really enjoyed the “fish market” grill at The Boathouse. By far, the single best restaurant is definitely the pan-Asian Floating Market. I ate garlic-ginger steak there and it was prepared perfectly. Service was exceptional regardless of where we ate and we received a few comped desserts from the staff for no reason. Dinner was reasonably priced for a resort and definitely not lacking in taste like it has been at some locked-in places I’ve been, like Hawaii.

Butler service was great throughout, promptly delivering pressed clothing, bringing our wake-up hot beverage service within minutes of us calling, and even providing a few extras like a fresh fruit plate delivered to us on the beach and a romantic floral petal arrangement on our bed one day.

An experience we’ll never forget – Air Mauritius Helicopter

The bottom line is this; the helicopter ride over Mauritius was something that we’ll never forget for the rest of our lives. It was also surprisingly cheap given the quality of the experience, costing just $480 for the two of us for a 1/2 hour flight that covered half of the island. I’m glad I availed ourselves of the opportunity.

It is difficult to describe how amazing the sights were from the air. We took so many pictures that it is hard to pick the best ones. The highlight of the journey was certainly the view of the “underwater waterfall” illusion off the coast of Le Morne Brabant.

Beach, beach, and more beach

The overwhelming amount of our time was spent lounging on the beach reading and listening to the waves break on the reef. We took a bunch of selfies with the Indian Ocean in the background and each read several books. It was exactly what I needed after half a year of expanding my business.

The long journey home

We had an extremely late departure on the way back to the United States, and the St. Regis was nice enough to grant us a courtesy room to use late into the afternoon when our driver met us to take us to the airport. Our car ride from the St. Regis to the airport was probably the least pleasant part of our entire trip. The driver was a madman, whipping around corners on single lane roads and passing slower moving vehicles with abandon, even in the presence of blind spots. When we reached the airport, we were earlier and had to wait thirty minutes to check in.

Once we were able to check in, though, the process was smooth and uneventful. We proceeded through security and headed to the Air Mauritius lounge, which was packed to the gills. Eventually they started to clear out and we were granted a reprieve from the wails of screaming children.

We flew from MRU to CDG on one of Air Mauritius’s brand new A350. The flight was amazing, particular in light of our previous experience on the A340. The seats were so comfortable and I slept like a baby even through heavy turbulence. The A350 has Nespresso machines on board but, depressingly, they still served instant coffee.

When we arrived in Paris we connected international-to-international, which was fairly straightforward, but our flight was delayed so we had to move pretty quickly from our arrival to departure gates. Unfortunately, our Air Mauritius flight was delayed about half an hour, so our bags ended up missing the connection and did not arrive in Chicago.

Our flight from CDG to ORD was uneventful aboard an Air France A330. The service was stellar and the food was delicious – I got a huge kick out of the fact that the crew could not believe that I did not want to have any wine. I gladly took my sparkling water with lemon, though! Once in Chicago, we overnighted at The Gwen before heading to Midway for our final flight home.

I’m glad that we grabbed this opportunity when we could and I still can’t believe the deal we were able to secure. I couldn’t be happier with the service at the St. Regis Mauritius and, while I’m not sure we’ll return because there are so many more places to see in the world, I would never hesitate to recommend it to others because of our exceptional experience.

The Middle East
Our Trip to Egypt and Jordan

Angela and I recently journeyed to the Middle East for the first time, with stops in Egypt and Jordan. We had no intention of making a trip like this during 2018, but when I saw a 40% off flash sale on all Royal Jordanian fares pop up on January 1st, I decided to take the plunge and purchase two roundtrips from Chicago, O’Hare (ORD) to Cairo, Egypt (CAI) via Amman, Jordan (AMM). The return routing was the same with several options in terms of timing. I chose one that allowed us almost a full day in Jordan in between Cairo and the United States so we could go see Petra.

Getting to Egypt

As previously mentioned, we decided to fly Royal Jordanian because of the sale fare. Of course, that left us the issue of getting from Las Vegas to Chicago. Thanks to the Southwest Companion Pass and my stash of Rapid Rewards points, we were able to position for free to Midway (and return to Las Vegas on the same route). From there it cost us $3 each to hop on the orange line, transfer to the blue line, and make it to O’Hare with plenty of time to spare.

The check-in process at O’Hare was smooth. We waited in line for about fifteen minutes before the check-in desk opened because we got to the airport fairly early. We wanted to leave sufficient transfer time between the airports because it was impossible to know if the positioning flight would be delayed or otherwise take longer than anticipated. We cleared security without any issues after checking in and headed to the Air France – KLM lounge. It was decent, but not as good as The Centurion Lounge at McCarran Airport (LAS).

We boarded the flight about an hour before takeoff. Angela and I were the first ones on the plane, other than those who required assistance, and I could immediately tell it was going to be a delight. We found both a pillow and blanket at our seat and were immediately offered Arabic coffee – if you haven’t had it before (like I hadn’t), it is absolutely delicious. The fragrance is enchanting.

The seats we chose were 1D and 1G – the first row in the business class cabin and situated so we both had direct aisle access. The plane was a recent Boeing 787 Dreamliner. I won’t go into the flight too much, but we were both extremely comfortable, enjoyed the dinner and breakfast provided, and were able to get a solid amount of rest on the flight from ORD to AMM. Angela and I generally find it hard to sleep on airplanes, but flying business class is an absolute game-changer. It allowed us to arrive at our destination without much of the terrible jet lag that we would otherwise experience.

We had a two and a half hour layover in Amman, mostly spent in the business class lounge enjoying complimentary water and coffee, before heading to Cairo. Upon landing in Cairo, we were met by an agent, arranged through our hotel, who took care of everything. We were whisked through customs and immigration with no questions asked and no standing in line at all. Unfortunately, Angela’s suitcase did not make it on to the plane with us to Cairo so we had to spend some time filing a lost luggage claim. Luckily, the bag was delivered to our hotel a day later – it was stressful, but worked out in the end.

Our Accommodations in Cairo

We decided to stay at The Nile Ritz-Carlton, Cairo on this trip and arrived there about twenty five minutes after leaving the airport. We were greeted with an extensive security check – bollards surround the hotel, there is a carefully guarded entrance, every vehicle is checked for weapons and sniffed for bombs, and guests have to x-ray their bags and walk through a metal detector on every entry into the premises. I do not know how much of this is security theater and how much of it is actually required due to ongoing threats, but it was certainly an experience.

We were upgraded from the deluxe room that I booked into a junior suite on the top floor overlooking the Egyptian Museum.

The room was spacious and comfortable. We booked a fantastic rate that included breakfast and I was extremely happy that we did so. It was delicious and featured both Western and Middle Eastern cuisine every day. I was particularly delighted by the fresh kiwi and other fruits, as well as the shakshouka.

Exploring the Citadel and Old Cairo

Our first full day in Cairo was spent exploring the Cairo Citadel.

The Mosque of Muhammad Ali is located inside the Citadel itself. The building itself is an interesting combination of limestone and alabaster and is absolutely stunning.

The details are beautiful. The following piece of metalwork was apparently cast as a single piece. Our tour guide told us that perfection was insisted upon and this was just one example.

The courtyard had a large structure that our guide said was a fountain, but restoration work was being performed on it when we visited. The vibrant colors stood out against much of the beige and brown that we saw throughout the rest of the complex:

The interior of the mosque featured large chandeliers and painted domes. It seemed extremely European in its execution. One of the men leading a tour inside the mosque was kind enough to demonstrate the acoustics of the dome with a beautiful call of Allahu Akbar. The sound travel was amazing – it reminded me of the US Capitol building.

After leaving the Mosque of Muhammad Ali, we were treated to a stunning vista view of Cairo. The city is absolutely sprawling and is home to 25 million inhabitants. I tried to capture some of the vastness in the following three shots.

There are a lot of beautiful mosques all across Cairo, including the Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan which I was able to capture from the Cairo Citadel area.

We walked over to the Al-Nasser Mohammed Ibn Kalawoun Mosque next. This mosque is older and more classically Arabesque in design. The courtyard was expansive and the columns were extremely interesting. One even included a cross as it was previously used in a Christian church. I found the sundial that timed out the calls to daily prayer to be particular interesting – while the nail that would have cast a shadow was no longer present, the purpose of the etching was immediately apparent.

After leaving the Cairo Citadel, we headed to Old Cairo where we visited several older religious buildings. The first was the Coptic Christian Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus. This church sits over the cavern where the Coptic Christians hold that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph stayed during their flight to Egypt.

The following photos show the original stones from the floor of the cavern and the crib where Jesus is said to have slept.

The rest of the church was beautiful and had a few particular interesting features. Our tour guide told us that the church was built in the style of Noah’s Ark, as you can see from the ceiling.

There was an anchor carved into the exterior wall of the church, continuing the play on the Noah’s Ark theme.

We next visited one of the few remaining synagogues in Egypt, the Synagogue of the Levantines. It is said that this synagogue is located where Moses was found by the Egyptians before being taken into the royal family. Pictures were not allowed in the synagogue, but I took this photo outside showing the symbols of three religions.

After that, we took a short walk to the Greek Orthodox Church of Saint George – it was gorgeous.

Our penultimate destination was the Fortress of Babylon, which played an important role in the history of Egypt by guarding the Nile River and collecting tolls from boats passing through. It was rebuilt by the Romans, which is what you can see in the photo.

Our final stop in Old Cairo was the The Hanging Church. I found this church to be particularly interesting in the use of Arabesque styling. Unfortunately, pictures were not allowed inside (although I did sneak one of a fit-joined ivory and wood inlay), but the interior was just as beautiful as the exterior.

Giza, Saqqara, and Memphis

The second day in Egypt was definitely the busiest as we visited three separate locations during a full-day tour. We were first driven to Giza to see The Great Pyramids. Along the way, we passed over the Nile River and were given the chance to step out and take a few photos.

Angela and I have both wanted to visit the Great Pyramids of Giza since we were children but I don’t think either of us thought we would ever be lucky enough to do so. To say they met expectations would be a significant understatement. The scale of the pyramids is overwhelming as you approach them. It is hard to relay the feelings that I felt standing in the shadow of the monuments, but I think our tour guide had it right when she said:

Man fears Time, but Time fears The Pyramids.
Rania

I took a ton of pictures of the pyramids, but none of them do justice to the size and scope of the complex. I do have a few favorites, though.

After walking around Khufu’s pyramid, we visited an excavated tomb that belonged to a high-ranking nobleman.

The interior was amazing – it was our first real glimpse of ancient hieroglyphics and to be able to touch them and appreciate the work of artisans from thousands of years ago was something that cannot be described.

The tomb had a shaft dug to the original resting place of the person who was interred within it. We clambered down there and I got to take a couple of shots of Angela doing her best Assassin’s Creed impression.

After exiting the tomb, we headed back to the car for a short drive to something I’d been looking forward to since I booked our trip to Egypt – a camel ride across the desert.

Our tour guide spelled out exactly how much it would cost, $25 each, for the ride out to the spot where we could take the best pictures. She handled payment for us and made absolutely sure we got what we wanted. She held on to our cash until we returned from our short trek. This was one of the places in which I was particularly happy to have had a guide with us.

I was able to snap some pictures from the back of the camel – it was a little tough because my camel, Casanova, had a real attitude problem.

Our camel driver was kind enough to both take some awesome pictures of us and to take a selfie with us when we reached our destination.

I also snapped some photos myself – I couldn’t believe the view. It was like something out of a fairy tale.

Angela’s camel was very well-behaved. While she wouldn’t give him a kiss, she did get close enough to snap a really sweet shot.

We headed to the Great Sphinx of Giza next and it was, again, even more impressive than I anticipated. The monument itself is a monolith carved from a single piece of rock. The reinforcing bricks were added later as part of preservation efforts.

We were lucky enough to witness an archaeological dig in person while at the Great Sphinx. It reminded us of how much active work there is still being done to discover the history of Egypt.

We then left Giza and drove to Saqqara. It is separated from the main city of Cairo by about 15 miles and houses some of the first pyramids in Egypt. These were, essentially, the prototypes for the Great Pyramids that would come later.

The most well-preserved pyramid at Saqqara is the Pyramid of Djoser. It is the main feature of a complex that features a colonnade entrance, among many other things.

We also saw some examples of Hieratic text in a preserved chamber. Hieratic text was used as a less time-consuming form of writing compared to hieroglyphics.

The site played host to many other ancient structures, including worker’s lodgings and other general buildings. In lieu of a detailed list, please see the following pictures.

On the way out of the Saqqara site, we stopped to take some pictures of the vista with date palms (we think) as far as the eye could see.

Our last stop of the day was Memphis, the ancient capital of Lower Egypt. We saw many statues and monuments in the small museum area, but the highlight was definitely the Statue of Ramesses II.

The Egyptian Museum

In case you don’t know, Angela and I both love museums. We’re usually happy to do self-guided tours, but we’re glad that we paid for a guide given that only 10% of the items were labeled. This should change in the near future as the new Egyptian Museum should open within the next couple of years. For now, though, if you’re going to visit, then I highly recommend securing a guide.

Let me preface this section with this – the absolute coolest things we saw in the Egyptian Museum were those that we weren’t able to take pictures of. Notably, Tutankhamun’s sarcophagus and headdress. The priceless artifacts were tremendous in their beauty and craftsmanship.

In addition, the museum plays host to quite a few partially or wholly unwrapped mummies, providing a glimpse into the results of ancient preservation techniques. Unfortunately, photography in those areas is also forbidden. It is too bad because the bodies were absolutely amazing given the age of each.

The building that the museum is hosted within is beautiful in its own right.

The courtyard contains a small fountain that features papyrus and lotus flowers, the symbols of Upper and Lower Egypt.

Once inside, the vastness of the collection is immediately obvious. There are statues and artifacts everywhere you look. It was also completely full of people. Luckily, we were somehow able to capture a picture that shows all the cool Egyptian items without any of the other people.

I want to specifically point out the following statues because they were placed inside the museum as it was built. They’re so large that they wouldn’t have fit inside any of the entrances once it was completed.

A detailed list of all we saw would take forever to write, so please just enjoy the following selection of photos of some of our favorite artifacts.

After exiting the museum, we took a picture with our tour guide, Rania, and parted ways for the last time. We headed back to the hotel to rest during the remainder of our time in Egypt in preparation for the next day.

Petra, Jordan

The next day we headed to the airport early in the morning to board our flight to Amman. Upon arrival and after purchasing our entrance visa, we were greeted by Hussein, our driver for the day. He is a native Jordanian who had previously lived in the United States in New Jersey and had run a small convenience shop and deli for a few years before returning to his homeland.

Hussein was great! He was a wonderful driver and enjoyed pointing out all the different features of Jordan on the two and a half hour drive to Petra.

When we arrived at Petra, we immediately bought our tickets and headed down the main path towards the Treasury. Petra is a New Wonder of the World, dating from 312 BCE, and it certainly lived up to that distinction in our experience. After traversing a mostly open path, the canyon closes in on either side of you and you’re treated to a delightful walk between sandstone cliffs. Throughout the complex, the Nabataeans left their mark by carving intricate and interesting structures and decorations into the natural landscape.

Then, suddenly, it appears – The Treasury. The brief glimpse you can see between the canyon walls is just a preview for something so spectacular that it is hard not to be overwhelmed.

It is hard to convey just how amazing the ancient city is. The pictures get some of it across, but being there in person was just so magical. It just makes you think about how industrious and intelligent our collective ancestors were to construct such an amazing city. The Treasury was just the first piece.

Again, I took so many pictures that it is hard to narrow down to just a few, but I think the following should give a good impression.

We hiked out of the site and were driven back to Amman, Jordan for a ten hour stay at the Amman Marriott. The next day we flew to O’Hare on Royal Jordanian and to Las Vegas on Southwest, reversing the start of our journey.

Things to Consider

Angela and I had a fantastic time on our trip. For those looking to do a trip similar to this one, we have a few things you might want to consider.

First, we never felt unsafe in any way. There were police everywhere in Cairo, but they were just standing around “in case” something happened. There are people trying to hustle you for money nearly everywhere you go, but just say “no, thank you” and they’ll usually leave you alone. If you walk like you would in New York City you’ll be absolutely fine.

Second, make sure you have tipping money in Egypt. It is expected as part of the culture, especially from wealthier tourists. The amounts you’ll tip will be negligible compared to the cost of getting and staying in the Middle East. Just keep some small bills on you at all time and dispense them liberally.

Third, we would recommend not planning to drive – hire a guide with a driver and you’ll be much less stressed out and able to enjoy yourself. Personally, I think I might have had a heart attack if I tried to drive in either Egypt or Jordan.

Finally, we very much recommend a guide if you can afford one. We would not have had the same exemplary experience without our awesome guide, Rania. She was amazing and made sure that we saw everything we wanted to see with a minimum of hassle. It can seem awfully touristy to have a guide with you everywhere, but it is important to remember that you are a tourist. That doesn’t mean you should act like an ignorant American, but it does mean that you should make absolutely sure you take advantage of your time in a foreign place to the best of your ability. We try to be respectful of local cultural norms and learn a few words in the native language to help us get around, but we also know we stand out like a couple of sore thumbs as tourists so we don’t feel bad acting like them.

Our First Transoceanic Trip
Two Weeks in London & Paris

Angela and I recently returned from our first international transoceanic trip together. While we’ve previously traveled internationally, it has always been within the Americas, with trips to Mexico, Costa Rica, and Panama. We’ve previously flown across the ocean (to Hawaii twice), but that’s a domestic trip, so this one was something entirely different.

This was also the single longest vacation we’ve ever gone on and capped off the most travel-filled year we’ve ever had. For us, this was a huge new experience that we were excited to tackle.

The Prelude

We were leaving in the afternoon on a Sunday and, naturally, I expected to play flag football in the morning if possible. My games were scheduled at 9AM and 10AM so I geared up to play just like I do every week. Angela and I were excitedly talking about our trip on the way to the game and we were so happy before I started playing. I mean, look at these faces:

At the end of the first game, the opposing quarterback brought his hand down hard into my forehead, splitting my eyebrow open and causing me to bleed spectacularly. I thought we had won the game (as we forced a failed conversion in overtime), but while I dealt with my bleeding head they threw a penalty flag on me – I’m still a little upset.

Anyways, I tidied myself up and ended up needing five stitches:

We eventually made it home with just enough time to shower, dress, and get picked up by our delightfully helpful friends, Melody and Justin. They took us to the airport and we checked in before heading to the Centurion lounge. We grabbed some dinner in the lounge (delicious, to be sure) before heading to our gate.

We arrived just as priority boarding finished and, because we were flying Premium Economy, we walked right up to the gate and on to the plane.

The Flight – Las Vegas to London Gatwick

We booked our flight using Virgin Atlantic Flying Club miles transferred over from Chase. Because we weren’t too much cash out of pocket, we decided to book in the aforementioned Premium Economy. It was an interesting experience. Premium Economy on Virgin Atlantic is definitely not business or first class, but it is the most comfortable I’ve ever been while flying. My seat was wide enough that I never got bumped by someone in the aisle (a chronic problem on planes because of my wide shoulders). The leg room was more than adequate and I was comfortable throughout.

Meal service was excellent and Angela enjoyed two mini-bottles of wine on the trip out:

The total flight time was a tad under ten hours. From a combination of excitement and a pathological inability to sleep on an airplane, neither Angela nor I got any meaningful amount of rest even though I saw many others within the Premium Economy cabin snoozing.

Even with the lack of sleep we definitely enjoyed our flight and arrived in London ready to get into the city and to our hotel:

Transit to London and the First Night

After clearing customs at London-Gatwick, we headed to the train station located near the South Terminal and boarded the Gatwick Express. We hoisted our baggage aboard and prepared for the trip to Victoria Station. It was, quite thankfully, very straightforward and we arrived at the train station after about 40 minutes.

From the station we took a taxi to our hotel. This taxi ride was the moment I realized that the street markings in London mostly seemed to be guidelines rather than rules. The transit through the city via car was absolutely nuts to the point that I had no desire to look out the window.

We arrived at the DoubleTree Hotel London Westminster, our home for the week, and discussed what we were going to do now that we were finally in the city.

As an aside, the aforementioned hotel was very nice for us. It was definitely a business hotel, but it had room for us to store all our clothes, a comfortable bed, and decent room service. The location was close to many transit options and we never felt trapped by where we were staying. The included breakfast buffet was quite good if the weird scrambled eggs are avoided.

We both sat down for a moment to rest and immediately fell into a nap that lasted a few hours. That put a bit of a damper on what we felt we could experience the first night, so we decided to just take a walk around the nearby area and head to Hyde Park, where a winter celebration was going on.

The Hyde Park Winter Wonderland was pleasant but kitschy. It wasn’t anything different than what you’d experience in the United States with a local city fair. However, we did manage to capture a cute winter selfie:

After walking back from Hyde Park, we decided to grab dinner at the hotel restaurant. Angela had fish and chips, which she said were delicious. I ordered a steak and it was here I realized that the British apparently don’t believe in seasoning. I do not think there was anything on my steak – not even salt and pepper. It was cooked well enough, though, and I was happy to finish the day with a nice piece of meat.

Tower of London, Tower Bridge, HMS Belfast, and The Globe

Our first full day in London was an extremely busy one. Of course, it started with a selfie of us wearing sweaters (something we don’t often do in Las Vegas):

Our first destination was the Tower of London. We enjoyed a tour led by a Yeoman Warder (aka Beefeater) and then were able to wander around and explore the exhibits at the location by ourselves.

Personally, I found the history of the tower to be extremely fascinating. The evolution from stronghold to residence to prison to museum was amazing to hear. To be within the walls of a place with so much history was a little surreal.

Also, the crown jewels were extremely beautiful.

Next up on the list was a short walk to Tower Bridge for the Tower Bridge Exhibition. I love beautiful architecture and, to me, Tower Bridge is one of the most beautiful structures I’ve ever seen. I loved it:

We took a journey to the walkway above the main Tower Bridge roadway and enjoyed the views of the city from there. My favorite part was the transparent parts of the walkway with ceiling mounted mirrors as we were able to capture a pretty great picture:

Because I loved it so much, here’s another picture showing off a true beauty (and the bridge, too):

We strolled through a quaint Christmas market on the way to the HMS Belfast, a retired light cruiser that acts as a floating museum. Visiting the HMS Belfast was reminiscent of many other ship tours that we’ve done, including the USS Midway. Angela really took charge on the ship:

We walked to London Bridge next and enjoyed the London Bridge Experience, a haunted house type activity that plays into the history of London and London Bridge, in particular. I led the way through the haunted house and was extremely entertained as everyone behind me was startled out of their skin every 45 seconds. Unfortunately, I have no pictures or video of this.

The last stop on our first full day was the reconstruction of the Globe Theatre. We enjoyed the museum exhibition attached to the reconstruction and the tour given by our guide. I particularly enjoyed the description of the reconstruction techniques used – including the rebuilding of the thatch roof.

 

After our tour of the theatre, we decided to try the the Swan, the resaurant attached to the Globe. Angela and I both ate a savory pie and they were absolutely delicious:

Daytripping – Leeds Castle, Cliffs of Dover, Canterbury Cathedral, and a Ferry Ride

Our second full day took us out of London on a tour that we booked through Golden Tours. While we were happy with the destinations on the trip, the guide left a lot to be desired in terms of helpfulness and organization. First up on the itinerary was Leeds Castle, but not until after we took our morning selfie:

Leeds Castle was interesting. Originally built as a stronghold in the medieval period, it turned into a preferred royal residence, passed through the hands of various nobility, and then was purchased by a rich socialite in the 1900s. It is kept in the state it was last used in, that of a private residence for someone who hosted a lot of parties.

The exterior shows quite clearly that this is not just another home:

The interior was almost overwhelming in its opulence. For example, the last owner’s bathroom was completely covered in marble from floor to ceiling:

The main library had thousands of books – a literary man’s dream:

It was certainly impressive but it really just felt like a rich old person’s house on the inside. It reminded us a lot of the Anderson House from Washington DC which is similarly maintained in the style of the last person to live there. I did get one of my favorite pictures of the entire trip at Leeds Castle – check out this stunner (and don’t mind the duck)!

After the castle, we headed to the cliffs of Dover for a quick photo opportunity. The bus was parked, we were given enough time to walk to take a picture, and then we took off again. Even with the small amount of time allowed, Angela was able to grab a few great pictures of the cliffs, including several of an extremely old Roman lighthouse and old church on top of the cliffs.

We next headed to Canterbury to visit the cathedral made famous by Geoffrey Chaucer. While there was major restoration work being done on the exterior, the Gothic architecture could still be plainly seen:

The interior was equally stunning, with the trademark Gothic style really coming through in the vaulted ceiling:

If you’ve ever heard the question “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” then you’re surely familiar with Canterbury Cathedral as it was the scene of Thomas Becket’s murder. Fun fact, that phrase reentered societal consciousness just this year as it was quoted by James Comey during congressional testimony.

The cathedral featured some stunning works in stained glass:

Finally, Angela captured me doing my best Secrets of the Dead impression:

The day ended with a trip to Greenwich where we walked past the Naval Observatory and boarded a transit ferry down the Thames. There wasn’t a ton of excitement around this last part, but we did grab a photo of the Palace of Westminster’s Christmas regalia:

All of the Walking and Climbing

Our third day in London was full of lots and lots and lots of walking – the perfect way to explore any new city! We started off the day with a selfie, as usual:

Our first stop was St. Paul’s with the intent of exploring the church. Unfortunately there was a memorial service happening and we were unable to enter, but we did manage to admire the architecture from the exterior:

After getting over some mild disappointment, we headed to the Monument to the Great Fire of London, which rewarded us with amazing views of the city after a dizzying climb up a seemingly endless spiral staircase.

After taking in the beautiful sites, we headed a few blocks away to the London Mithraeum, a restored Roman temple underneath the Bloomberg Europe headquarters. This was something that I just happened to stumble upon a reference to somewhere so we put it on our list of sights to see. I’m extremely glad we did as it was extremely interesting.

The temple is restored underground close to where it was 2,000 years ago so you have to head downstairs to enter:

The restoration includes light, fog, and sound effects to try to mimic the ceremonies that would have taken place there:

Next up on our walking tour of London was Trafalgar Square and the Nelson column. There wasn’t much to do here but snap some pictures and soak up the sight of so many monuments in one place, so that’s exactly what we did:

After 20 minutes with the camera up, we headed to the only remaining house in the world where Benjamin Franklin lived. As a huge Franklin fan, I was extremely excited that Angela was able to find this for us.

After a historical reenactment tour at the former home of The First American, we headed off to Westminster Abbey. It was beautiful inside and out, but unfortunately pictures are not allowed inside so you’ll have to make do with the exterior:

We rounded out our day with a stop by Buckingham Palace because it was on the way back to the hotel and we wanted to grab some pictures:

Plundered (or Preserved Treasures) and Afternoon Tea

We reserved a whole day for The British Museum and I’m extremely glad that we did because there was so much to see. We were both extremely excited to see the treasures preserved (some would say plundered) from ancient civilizations. Of course, we had to start the day off with a selfie – I saved my special UK sweater for our day at the museum.

The exterior of the museum reminds me a lot of the Field Museum in Chicago with the columns and classical facade:

There were so many treasures in the British Museum (and you can see most of them online with pictures much better staged than ours) but I want to share some of my favorites. I found this commemorative carving of female gladiators who earned their freedom through their performance to be extremely interesting. I did not realize that women were allowed to fight in the arena and this piece of art disabused me of that perspective:

I took entirely too many pictures of busts of Roman emperors, but I found this paired set of the Emperor Hadrian and his lover Antinous to be extremely interesting. Last year I read a biography of Hadrian that talked extensively about the relationship between these two and it was illuminating to see the manner in which they were portrayed:

I did not realize that Cleopatra’s mummy was actually at this museum, so that was a somewhat exciting surprise as Cleopatra is such an interesting historical figure:

Angela was particularly partial to the large mosaics (from various cultures and eras) that were reassembled throughout the institution. Here were two of our favorite:

One of the most important pieces of archaeology in history is located at the entrance to the Egyptian wing. I’m talking, of course, about the Rosetta Stone. To see such an important piece of human knowledge in person made me quite emotional:

Of all the Egyptian statues, I particularly enjoyed this set of Sekhmet statues that Angela was kind enough to pose in front of:

The British Museum has a gigantic collection of items from The Parthenon in Greece. The story of how those items got into the collection is somewhat controversial, in my opinion – they were technically taken from their original location with a permit, but the permit was granted by administrators from the Ottoman Empire (given that the Parthenon was located within it) and not ethnic Greeks. Like a lot of the museum’s collection, the items are amazing pieces of history, but I felt a certain unease about their presence so far away from their original location and the circumstances under which they were acquired.

All that being said, the statuary was amazing:

One of my last favorite highlights from the museum’s collection was a Maori from Easter Island. We watched a documentary about these last year so it was great to see one in person and really be able to appreciate the artistry and scale:

We also enjoyed our first afternoon tea experience at the British Museum’s restaurant. The food was great, but the service was absolutely awful. I gestured to our waitress repeatedly for over an hour and she refused to come give us our bill. It was so frustrating.

The Shard and some Beautiful Views

Our final full day in London was relaxing compared to all the previous ones. Of course, we started with our daily selfie:

After that we visited a main shopping center in London, Covent Garden Market. It was very commercial, obviously, but because of Christmas there were plenty of delightful holiday decorations that we both really enjoyed.

After purchasing the special London scent at Diptyque (highly recommended), we were off to the Shard to get some great views of the city. I was quite enamored by the vista even if it was a little overcast and rainy:

After the soaring heights, we were back to Earth and back to our hotel for a delightful afternoon tea experience. One thing I wish I knew before we went is just how much I would enjoy these sittings in the middle of the afternoon:

The Train to Paris and a Beautiful First Night

We took the Eurostar direct from London to Paris city center and it was extremely easy. We taxied from our hotel in London direct to the terminal, checked in, and then patiently waited to board our coach. With assigned seats and large luggage racks there was nothing to worry about. I had booked us a hotel transfer direct from Paris Gare du Nord to our hotel – he was late but exceedingly nice when he eventually showed up.

Sidenote: I think in the future I’ll just eschew booking private car transfers because we have had exceptionally bad luck (including our last day when we headed back to London). My thinking has always been that the extra expense is worth it if there is a little less hassle, but everytime it ends up being more hassle than I find value in what I paid.

We grabbed a quick shot of both of us at the train station (showcasing my mildly stressed out, in the middle of travel face):

Then another one as soon as we got to our hotel in Paris, Hotel Le Cinq Codet. It was a beautiful hotel in a great location and I highly recommend it to anyone considering a trip to Paris. Look how happy we were at arrival:

After getting our bearings, we headed out into the cold Paris night and saw some amazing sights. On the way to the Arc de Triomphe we found ourselves standing by a bridge with a beautiful shot of the Eiffel Tower in the background. We couldn’t resist grabbing some pictures:

Eventually we made it to the Arc de Triomphe and it was even grander than I had imagined it would be. At the end of the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, it was quite the sight. After a few shots of the exterior we headed in and up:

The views from the top were amazing:

After that, it was back to our hotel, but not before crossing over the Pont Alexandre III bridge, famously featured in the animated movie Anastasia, an Angela favorite:

Our 7th Anniversary – The Louvre and Eiffel Tower

Our first full day in Paris started with the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had at Angelina Paris. I am not exaggerating when I say that if you like chocolate, you must stop here and indulge in the creamy deliciousness that they serve. It is rich and thick without being overly sweet and I will make it a priority to go back the next time we are in Paris.

Of course, we had to take our first Paris morning selfie while we waited:

As we strolled up to the Louvre, we were greeted with a fantastic view of the famous glass pyramid over the heads of the (not-too-large) crowd:

After passing into the museum proper, we started our lengthy tour of all the art contained therein. There’s so much to see, so I’m only going to mention some of our favorite highlights. First, the Code of Hammurabi, as much a piece of history as it is of art:

Next, we walked through restored / preserved state apartments of Napoleon III to get a feel for exactly how royalty lived. Some of the finishes contained within were simply amazing:

Angela posed, quite successfully, with a very nice statue:

We saw a complete and well-preserved sphinx:

I loved this cool eagle relief that were a common theme of the architecture:

Angela captured this amazing shot of the Venus de Milo after pushing through the throng:

Several statues by Michaelangelo were next on our list:

Again, Angela fought the raucous crowd to get a great shot of The Winged Victory of Samothrace, located in a busy stairwell:

We saw several Leonardo da Vinci paintings which, even to my untrained eyes, were self-evident masterpieces. Unfortunately, there was no way to get good pictures due to reflections on the glass covering the canvas. We, of course, also saw the Mona Lisa but did not wait in the packed line to get close to it.

My personal favorite artwork from our visit is what we saw next – the mammoth scale and detail in Liberty Leading the People and Consecration of the Emperor Napoleon I and Coronation of the Empress Josephine in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris on 2 December 1804 brought my heart joy and took my breath away momentarily. The artists’ work on these two pieces in particular was stunning and really something to behold. It is hard to imagine the scale until you’re looking at them in person:

We finished up our visit with a look at the French Crown Jewels, located in the Galerie d’Apollon, an absolutely stunning space:

After a somewhat early dinner at a local cafe, we headed to the Eiffel Tower to go up to the top. Here’s a view from our walk up to it through a small park:

The whole structure was amazing. Here’s a look at the bottom from directly underneath it:

We waited in line for close to 45 minutes before we got to head to the top, but it was worth every minute of waiting and every euro we spent. The views were incredible:

It was absolutely freezing at the top, but we stuck it out to get some special pictures for our anniversary – I couldn’t imagine a different way I would have wanted to spend the night:

 

Versailles

We booked a Versailles tour through Viator that we were very pleased with. We were picked up at our hotel by an extremely friendly driver and escorted around Versailles by a knowledgeable and fun guide.

Unfortunately, the day we visited Versailles it was like there was a cloud hanging three feet off the ground, so we didn’t get a grand view from the palace’s courtyard or experience the gardens in any meaningful way. That being said, we did enjoy the royal surroundings.

As with every other day, we started this one with a quick selfie:

And then another one in the courtyard that shows just how foggy it was:

The estate was visually overwhelming in many ways, so I think the best way to describe it is through pictures of some of our favorite parts:

The following nondescript desk is important because it is where the Treaty of Versailles was signed at the end of the World War I – some would say the document signed here led to World War II, although I’m currently reading a book that disputes this commonly held opinion in some ways.

This painting depicts the Battle of Yorktown, which led fairly directly to an American victory in the Revolutionary War – nice to see the American-French relationship depicted in such an important place:

I also captured a picture of this super cutie I found by the gates:

We arrived back at our hotel in the middle of the afternoon and decided to rest most of the evening after enjoying a delicious dinner.

Musée de l’Armée

We spent almost an entire day in the French military museum located at Les Invalides and it was well worth. After grabbing some breakfast and our obligatory selfie, we decided to head out. The building is stunning to walk up to:

Interestingly, the location houses the largest single collection of artillery pieces (at least that is the claim) so there are cannons and bombards everywhere. I snapped a few inside the courtyard as we walked into it:

The museum is enormous and plays host to a veritable treasure trove of medieval, renaissance, and later arms and armor. Here are a few of my favorite pieces from the collection (that weren’t ruined by the glare from display cases):

The location also plays host to a set of tombs, including Emperor Napoleon I’s:

If you’re going to visit, I highly recommend the audio tour as it makes the experience much more informative. Again, after a full day of walking and reading we were exhausted and headed back to the hotel for some much needed rest.

Art, Art, and More Art

After gorging on militarism the previous day, we decided to return to a purer subject – art. We visited the Musee Rodin and the Musee d’Orsay and both were wonderful! Rodin is one of Angela’s favorite artists, so it was a real treat to see so much of his amazing work. Again, we took so many pictures but I’ll try to pick out some memorable / notable ones:

After admiring Rodin’s amazing sculptures, it was off to a less specialized, but no less amazing, art museum. On the way there we got to walk down through this quaint Parisian neighborhood, which I quite enjoyed:

Again, here are some of our favorite works (and I think you’ll recognize quite a few):

 

A Day of Bread and Cheese and Back to London

Our last full day in Paris we decided to relax and unwind given that we’d been on our feet touring two different international cities almost non-stop for multiple weeks. We woke up and headed to the local fromagerie (cheese shop) and boulangerie (bakery) to pick up some essentials for the day and hung out in our hotel room reading, talking, and recapping our trip. It was a great way to finish up our stay in Paris (and it helped that our hotel room was extremely conducive to relaxing like this).

Our last morning in Paris was beautiful and we decided to take full advantage of our final few hours by taking a brisk walk to the Champ de Mars where we snapped quite a few shots of us in front of the Eiffel Tower:

After taking those shots, it was back to London for our direct flight home to Las Vegas the next day. In retrospect, I wouldn’t do this again. I’d rather position myself in the US to a major city on the west coast then worry about flying from a specific place in Europe. We took a taxi to the train station in Paris, took the Eurostar to London, had to find our driver (who was late and kind of a dick), drive to Gatwick and get dropped off at the Courtyard Marriott at Gatwick, and then wake up early the next day to catch a (paid) shuttle to our terminal. I would not do that again, period.

Our trip was wonderful and we can’t wait to go back to Paris, hopefully during the spring when the gardens are blooming and it is a tad bit warmer. If you’ve never been, there is so much to do!

Hawaii

Angela and I recently visited Hawaii (the big island) for our two year anniversary. In whole, it was an awesome vacation – it certainly didn’t start that way though. We were scheduled to leave Las Vegas at 12:40 AM (in the wee morning hours) but due to a series of maintenance delays, we didn’t end up taking off until a little past 3. The plane was small and cramped (it was a 767, I believe) and there wasn’t room for our carry on bag so we had to gate check it. Neither one of us could really sleep on the way over the ocean, so when we got to Honolulu to switch to our interisland flight we were already really tired. After going to get our bag from the checked luggage area (because the flight attendant who “helped” us didn’t even ask if we were making a transfer when he took our gate checked bag) we ventured over to the interisland terminal and made our way to the big island via the shortest plane ride I’ve ever been on. From there, the next seven days were awesome.

Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation

After securing our rental car (a silver Ford Mustang convertible), we set off to the Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation. Angela had scheduled us a VIP tour that included a tour of the plantation, an overview of the roasting operation and a chance for us to roast our own Kona coffee beans. The experience was amazing.

We met our guide shortly after arriving at the coffee plantation. He was a young-ish native Hawaiian who knew a ton about the local flora and fauna in addition to the goings on of the coffee plantation itself. The plantation itself was very unassuming.

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The first thing we did was walk right past a goose who had just given birth to a bunch of goslings. That was probably the most aggressive animal I’ve ever encountered in my life. Any time we got within a dozen feet of the newborn goslings cage, the goose would start stamping its feet and hissing at us.

After that, we were introduced to the plantation’s resident pig. It was a half-feral, half-domesticated hybrid and was a lot friendlier than the goose.

As we walked down towards the coffee trees, we encountered some interesting landscape features that are unique to volcanic regions. The coolest one, in my opinion, was definitely the lava tube that run under a part of the plantation. Our guide was kind enough to take our picture while we stood on top of it.

Lava Tube

Finally, we got to the coffee trees. Because Mountain Thunder is primarily an organic grower, they don’t use pesticides, herbicides or fertilizer on their main coffee plantation. To make up for the absence of those things, they have donkeys and geese roam the area, eating the unwanted vegetation and promoting the growth of the plants through their droppings. As part of our tour, we got to feed these animals. The donkeys were miniature and super duper cute. The geese were really aggressive, going so far as to step on Angela’s foot (which was an especially interesting experience for her since she was wearing open sandals).

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After the feed ran out, we learned a bit about how the coffee is harvested at Mountain Thunder. All of their coffee cherries are hand picked from the trees at the peak of their ripeness and collected into big bags of 100 pounds each. It is fairly labor-intensive and this process accounts for a lot of the extra cost of Mountain Thunder’s coffee.

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The coffee tree is part of the gardenia family and has tiny little flowers all over it, which Angela found particularly fascinating.

We next ventured up to the coffee cherry processing facilities. The process has a bunch of steps, but Angela got good pictures of all of them. Basically what happens is as follows:

  1. The coffee cherry is checked for quality by seeing if it floats in a tank of water
  2. The cherry is stripped of its rind and fruit, leaving just the bean
  3. The bean is placed into a fermentation tank to remove it of its sugary coating
  4. The bean is removed from the fermentation tank and laid out to air dry in the sun
  5. If drying isn’t happening fast enough, the bean is placed with its batch in a large propane powered drier
  6. The beans are sorted and filtered based on quality and grade
  7. The coffee is roasted

The coolest part of the process (in my mind) was the sorting and filtering based on bean size and grade. The owner of the plantation had custom-built a ton of equipment to aid in this process and it was totally awesome. Here are some pics of the process (in order):

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After the main part of the tour was over we ate some lunch that the coffee people procured for us from some local restaurant. It was fairly good, but I only mention it in particular because Angela got an awesome picture of a rooster next to Sriracha (rooster) sauce.

Rooster and Rooster Sauce

Finally, it was time for us to roast our own coffee. The owner of the plantation came over and walked us through the process on a small personal-sized roaster. We got the whole education about their roasting profile, why it is what it is and got to make it happen. It was a ton of fun. After we roasted the coffee, we got to bag it (which Angela was about a million times better at than I was) and take some home with us.

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Overall, the Mountain Thunder VIP tour was well worth the cost. Angela and I both had a blast!

Hawaii Fairmont Orchid

After finishing up the coffee plantation tour, Angela and I finally made our way to the hotel. For this trip, we decided to stay at the Hawaii Fairmont Orchid. It was on the higher end of resorts on the island but wasn’t so expensive that it made our stay untenable. I am so glad that we decided to stay there as it was beautiful.

Hotel Lobby

Hotel Bay 4

Coconut Christmas Tree

Hotel Waterfall

Room view 2

Room view 1

We were so tired that first night that we just ordered room service. It was definitely underwhelming and something we did not partake of the rest of the time there. That was probably the only bad thing about the hotel, though.

Drive Around the Island

After a day of relaxing, we set our alarms and woke up early for a tour of the island. We hopped in our car and headed to our first destination, the Punalu’u Black Sand beach. Before we had even gone five miles, we found this tribute to Angela written in rocks.

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Followed by this exceedingly creepy warning sign.

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Anyways, back to the black sand beach. Angela found this little gem while browsing around for “off the beaten path” spots that tourists weren’t likely to see. It was, by far, the coolest little beach that I’ve ever been on. The sand grains were like little black beads. Walking across the beach just felt different than on any other beach I’d ever visited.

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One interesting thing that happened there was some hippy tried to give me a CD of cello music. I declined but he handed me some pamphlet prompting me to accept Jesus. Nice guy.

The next step on our journey was Volcanoes National Park. As we drove there, we discovered one of the neatest things about this drive, which kind of goes along with the fact that the island is a volcano, is that the landscape outside of our windows changed completely about every half hour. It was crazy.

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We arrived at the park the same time as a cold and windy storm, which was unfortunate. Crater Rim Drive (the road that circles the Kilauea Caldera) was closed for the most part, so we didn’t really get to see a ton. We did stop at the caldera look out point and saw a bunch of steam rising from the opening to the red-hot earth. That was pretty darn neat.

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We left the park and continued our trip around the island. Our next stop was Akaka Falls north of Hilo. It was still cold and rainy and I was kind of being a whiny little baby about it, so we waited in the car for a few minutes for the worst of the rain to pass so I wouldn’t be cold. Angela was smart enough to purchase a hooded sweatshirt at our previous stop but I had been stubborn so was just wearing a white t-shirt.

I am glad we waited, though, because the scenery at the falls was absolutely beautiful.

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Here’s a cool picture of me in our rental car at the falls.

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After the falls we were pretty darn tired so decided to head back to the hotel across the island. On the way there, we stopped at this little coffee shop called Hilo Shark where Angela and I had the best chocolate we have ever eaten (and I’ve eaten a lot of chocolate). If you like your chocolate super dark and delicious, I can definitely recommend ordering some.

We drove towards the north part of the island and ended up going through the town of Waimea and up into some mountains where we saw an awesome double rainbow.

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Finally, we made it back to the hotel. Rather than eating at the hotel, we ventured out to the local Tommy Bahama’s restaurant. It was surprisingly delicious. I had steak and Angela had ahi tuna. We ended up going back there several times.

Tommy Bahama Steak

Tommy Bahama Ahi Tuna

Macadamia Nut Factory and End of the World

The next day it was a little rainy and wet. Instead of sitting by the pool and dealing with that, we decided to go visit the local Hamakua Macadamia Nut Company. They have a little glass walled production environment where you can watch everything happen and they have a ton of samples that you can try. There were a lot of different flavors, including one that Angela and I wanted no part of: Spam.

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Nuts

Spam nuts

After we left the factory, we decided to take a short little drive to see some different parts of the island. What started out as a short little drive turned into a several hour long venture down a “highway” that consisted of about ten one-lane bridges, crazy twisty turns around cliffs and speed limits of 15 MPH. All of a sudden, there is a sign that says “highway ends” and the road just terminates in a parking lot that looks over one of the most beautiful sights we’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, the parking lot was full and we didn’t get a chance to stop (and I had to do the tightest three point turn I’ve ever done) but here is a photo taken by someone else. This place seriously looked like something out of time.

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After turning around, we went back to Waimea and had some Kona coffee mochas before heading back to the hotel. That night we ate at one of the Fairmont Orchid’s on site restaurants, Brown’s Beach House. It was definitely overrated as the food was absurdly expensive and, quite frankly, just mediocre. We still don’t understand why Yelp was all up in arms about how great the place was.

Relaxing

The last few days at the resort we just relaxed. One of the things we did while we were relaxing was drive four miles over to the sister resort near the Fairmont Orchid, the Mauna Lani, and hung out there for a little bit. It was nice and there were sea turtles there, so Angela really liked it. We also found that Mountain Thunder had an affiliated coffee shop at the resort.

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Also, we went to a Luau at the hotel called “The Gathering of Kings”. It was the story of the migration of people through the Polynesian islands (including Hawaii, Samoa and New Zealand). There was fire twirling and tons of native foods from each of the islands profiled. Angela and I tried a bunch of new foods including a Hawaiian favorite Poi. I would not recommend it as it tasted like eating Play-Doh.

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Finally, this was the first time I had gone on vacation without doing any kind of work in about four years, so it was really awesome to be able to just lay by the pool, read and drink milkshakes.

Nick by the pool 2

The Journey Back

Our flight back was a lot better than our flight to Hawaii as we flew on an Airbus A330 with tons of room. There was no gate-checking involved and our flight left on time. After we got back, I took some more time off to hang out with Angela and just celebrate our anniversary. We both loved our trip to Hawaii and are already looking forward to our next trip to somewhere tropical.