Unforgettable helicopter tour over Kauai

Chuck and I celebrated another wedding anniversary in June. Often this time of year, we reminisce about past anniversaries and the many ways in which we have celebrated over the years. For our 10th anniversary in 2007, we spent a memorable vacation in Hawaii. Our itinerary was so jam-packed with places to go and things to see over two weeks on two islands that some vacation memories have gotten a bit ‘fuzzy’ with time. But our helicopter trip over Kauai is one anniversary trip activity we won’t soon forget.

Who could forget the breathtaking scenery over the Garden Isle?  We soared high above Kauai’s spectacular beauty — each sight made us imagine we were dropped onto a page of a Hawaii photography coffee table book, a flashy, souvenir calendar or a colorful tourism website.

Inter-Island Helicopters was recommended by friends and also came highly rated in the tour guide known as the “blue bible” — The Ultimate Kauai Guidebook. We opted for a deluxe tour which landed us at a private waterfall where we enjoyed a break from the loud whirring of blades. Some of us even took a quick dip in a crystal clear pool at the base of the falls. As I understand it, the waterfall landing tour is no longer available, so we feel really fortunate to have been able to go when we did.

Inter-Island is one of a few Kauai helicopters companies to offer tourists door-free rides. It’s one thing to fly a couple thousand feet above the azure blue waters of the Pacific and the lush Hawaiian tropical canopy; think about riding in a helicopter without doors!  After a few minutes getting our heads (and stomachs) adjusted to the motion and height of the take-off, we felt much more at ease. The pilot’s narration and humor helped us to relax a bit more.

Yet as we looked down over the landscape, we were quickly reminded that the only thing holding us in was a combination seat belt/shoulder strap. Our white-knuckled fists stayed firmly wrapped around the nearest grab bar — aka the “Oh-(insert expletive)! handle.”  At one point when the helicopter climbed up out and over the island’s northern cliffs, we glanced back and forth in both directions — we could see up and down the Kauai’s iconic Na Pali Coast. These overwhelming views kept the exclamations rolling off our tongues: “Wow!” “I can’t believe this!” “Incredible!”

Gorgeous landscapes, infinite coastal beaches and dazzling canyons were not the only sights from our Kauai helicopter tour. We also were able to spot wildlife — mountain goats, wild boars and of course, those famous Kauai chickens.

Here are some of our favorite photos and a short video from that unforgettable anniversary helicopter tour.

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Hills of southwest Kauai

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Waimea Canyon

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Along Kauai’s Na Pali Coast

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Monowaiopuna Falls

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North coast near Tunnels Beach

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We landed in a clearing in north central Kauai

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Multiple waterfall sights on Kauai helicopter tour

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Patchwork farmland of south central Kauai

Know before you go: Tabacon Hot Springs Resort & Spa

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To many travelers, Costa Rica’s Tabacon Hot Springs Resort & Spa may seems like an expensive and out-of-reach vacation choice, but this popular thermal springs luxury resort can be accessible to most with a little common budget travel sense.

Tabacon is located at the base of Arenal Volcano near La Fortuna de San Carlos. Geothermal hot springs in the local area have made it extremely popular for tourists. Although there are several places to experience the hot springs, Tabacon — with its beautiful gardens, iconic waterfalls, natural wading pools and romantic private grottos — remains on the bucket list of many travelers. Here are some items to consider if you plan to visit this beautiful resort and attraction:

Opt for an overnight stay at one of the nearby resorts. If the nightly rates at Tabacon are out of your budget, if you’re visiting during a peak season, or if the only room available is one of the $1200 honeymoon suites: don’t despair. You can stay at a nearby resort such as the Arenal Lodge and still purchase a day pass for Tabacon. And unless you’re planning to stay a few nights and book several spa treatments, I’d recommend this option. For example, consider buying a day pass for a morning of soaking and strolling in the hot springs followed by a leisurely lunch from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. for $70. Or you could get a pass for the entire day — from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. without a meal for $60. There are other meal/day pass package combinations available, and I would recommend having at least one meal at the resort, just to top off the experience.

Relax in the lobby bar. Okay, so you’ve decided to stay one or more nights at Tabacon, and maybe your bus or taxi has dropped you off before your room is ready. Know that you can explore the resort or simply relax in the lobby bar. This is a great place to catch up on some U.S. sporting events, or grab an appetizer while you wait for your room.

Explore the resort. Start out by walking Tabacon’s paths weaving through throughout the property. After getting settled in your suite, obtain a map and take some time to inspect the gardens. Take some dusk or nighttime photos of the spectacular plants and tropical flowers. Visit El Palenque Bar for happy hour at the far reaches of the grounds. Get to know your way around the resort before you spend the next day soaking in pools and being showered by warm waterfalls. You can learn at which water features you will want to spend most of your time.

Wear water shoes or at least flip-flops with some decent tread. Tabacon River rocks and stepping stones can be extremely slippery. Because this tropical paradise gets an average of 137 inches of rain and the springs supply a constant mist over the earth, almost every walkway seems constantly wet. Exercise extra caution when stepping into the deeper pools — and use care when negotiating a seat under the waterfalls — that water pressure is very high. Also, know that water temperatures vary. Some pools are a cool 77 degrees, while others are a steamy 102 degrees.

Schedule your spa treatment early. If you don’t reserve a massage or other spa treatment before you arrive, you may miss out. Consider making a reservation when you reserve your room — or at least a week before you arrive. These time slots will book up early — obviously even more so, during peak seasons such as late fall, winter and early spring.

Learn practical photography tips about shooting in high moisture areas. In an effort to save my new Canon from the moisture, I made the mistake of buying a single use, disposable, waterproof camera for my stay at Tabacon. Unfortunately, my prints — those taken while enjoying the pools and waterfalls — came out extremely grainy when I had them developed. I can’t say what exactly caused that, but I understand now there are much better ways to capture Tabacon experiences on film. I’ve heard this will help: Store the camera in an airtight plastic bag until it can brought outside and adjusted to the current temperature and humidity. Online searches will produce even more suggestions for photography in humid, moist, misty or foggy conditions. And just in case your photos didn’t turn out the best, you can always download some from the resort website.

Watch the volcano. You may not see much action, since Arenal’s activity level has decreased considerably since 2010. We visited in 2007, so we were fortunate to see Arenal still shooting up smoke and ash. And In the evening from our patio, we could distinguish a few strings of lava rolling down the mountain. Although volcanic activity has decreased, you may be fortunate to catch a rare display!

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More photos of Costa Rica can be viewed here.

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Harborside at Atlantis Resort: off-season stay advantages

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You have your own waterfall at Atlantis Resort in the off-season

 

Two major downsides prevent many vacationers from booking a late summer or early fall stay at a Caribbean or southern Atlantic resort. And granted, they are important ones: hurricane warnings and lack of activities. Unless you’re extremely worried about hurricane possibilities or you focus ALL activity on the ocean, most vacationing families will find enjoyable off-season stays are worth every dime — saved from reduced airfares, hotel or condo rates, restaurant charges and tour fees. Some off-season advantages we found while spending a September week’s stay at Harborside Resort at Atlantis on The Bahamas’ Paradise Island are:

Reduced lodging rates

Harborside Resort at Atlantis is one of 20 resorts in the Starwood Vacation Ownership collection. Using our Starwood points exchange program called StarOptions, we were able to trade our home resort week in Cancun to book a one-bedroom condo week during September at Harborside. Although it’s not actually part of the main Atlantis Resort, the adjacent Harborside Villas are just a five-minute walk or short complimentary shuttle ride around the yacht marinas to Atlantis. These nicely appointed condo units book up quickly for spring breaks, early summer vacations and winter holiday seasons. Even if you don’t own a timeshare you still may be able to find a deal through owners who rent out their week. Check sites such as Craigslist or Redweek.com. Or find lower nightly rates at Atlantis’ family-friendly Beach Tower or Coral Tower.

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Harborside at Atlantis Resort, view from Atlantis Marina

 

More time for perusing art and architecture

If you’ve been to Desert Botanical Gardens in Phoenix, you’ve seen artist Dale Chihuly’s Desert Towers, located just outside the admissions building. At Atlantis Resort’s casino, each room opens to a large Chihuly glass sculpture, either suspending from the ceiling or sprouting out of a cashier’s kiosk. In the off-season, since there’s an increased chance of cloudy, windy days, you may as well be spending additional time in the casino anyway. Right? Why not take the time – in between rounds of blackjack – to admire these wonderful works?  You also can stroll around the hallways of the convention and entertainment wings and gaze upon Atlantis’ mythological metal works and massive architectural designs.

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Glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly on display Atlantis Resort Casino

 

Less waiting time in line for water rides and slides

Some resorts and water parks have numerous water features but none can hold a candle to Atlantis. In the off-season, you’ll find shorter wait lines and less chance of body bumping or traffic jamming along the Lazy River or The Current, a mechanical surf wave which propels inner-tubing kids of all ages through a canal around the waterfall grottos. More people will be dominating the famous water slides, but even these lines also move quickly. Tip: be sure your inner tube is fully inflated before riding down Power Tower slides.

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Atlantis Resort’s ‘The Current’ is no lazy river

 

No hustling and bustling to get your towel on a beach chair at 5 a.m.

Twelve pools, seven water slides, three beaches, two rivers, one lagoon will be at your disposal without crowds. I lost count of all the waterfalls and fountains. Maybe someone can get back to me on that. Crescent-shaped Cove Beach is the most protected — best for quiet wading. We also enjoyed our long morning strolls along Atlantis Beach and Paradise Beach. Tip: bring your entire days’ gear to the water park and stow snack lunches, water, change of clothes, money, etc. in hospitality lockers.

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More space for your sand castle if you visit during off-season

 

More photo opportunities of aquarium marine life

During peak times of day during the off-season, crowds will gather at feeding time around the underwater viewing windows. Feeding and times when fish are more active seem to attract schools of tourists. You will have more opportunity to return to the exhibit tunnels during other times of day and then have entire viewing window to yourself while you snap photos of manta rays, hammerhead sharks, seahorses, moon jellyfish, moray eels and many other species. Tip: don’t forget to turn off the camera flash when shooting through the window.

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Eels in one of many subterranean marine life exhibits

 

No reservations – no problem

We enjoyed several of the restaurants, both near the main casino area and on the resort perimeter without long waits. Atlantis has a wide variety of dining options – there’s something pleasing for every kind of palate and pocketbook. A few places required reservations, but when we arrived, few tables were filled or reserved. And shopping, too, actually was pleasant. Window-shopping at high-end designer shops in the Crystal Court and Marina Village makes for wishful daydreaming. Or visit nearby souvenir and craft shops — just a short walk away from the resort.

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Pastel, Colonial-style shops, cafes and bistros at the Marina Village

 

Best thing about traveling to The Bahamas during off-season? It’s the same time as fall break for many of Arizona’s school districts — perfect time for a family getaway!

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During the off-season, have the Royal Baths Pool all to yourself — almost

Don’t miss Costa Rica’s La Paz Waterfall Gardens

No trip to Costa Rica is complete without a visit to La Paz Waterfall Gardens. Even if your only stop in Costa Rica were to be this wonderful combination resort and sight-seeing attraction, you would have seen much of what this Central American country is famous for: beautiful butterflies, amazing hummingbirds, colorful snakes and frogs, lush tropical gardens surrounded by spectacular rivers and waterfalls. All of this flora and fauna is set in a magnificent hillside cluster with fishing lake and boutique spa resort. But the Costa Rica ‘to-do’ list wouldn’t be finished without volcano and coffee plantation tours, forest canopy zip-lining and river rafting. Guests at the adjacent Peace Lodge can arrange nearby day tours to these areas as well. La Paz Waterfall Gardens and Peace Lodge are centrally located between Costa Rica’s capital, San Jose and other iconic Costa Rican tourism highlights: Arenal Volcano and hot springs resorts near Fortuna. It’s an ideal location for those considering a vacation in Costa Rica.

Butterfly feeding time at La Paz Waterfall Gardens

Hummingbird taking a rare rest break

Aviary birds are perfect close-up 'models'

Colorful ox cart ready for passengers

Favorite photo opportunity along 'Trail of Falls'

Restaurants, lodge rooms -- even restrooms have the feel of the tropics

These photos don’t really do justice for this wonderful Costa Rica park, wildlife refuge and hotel. Find more descriptions and a photo gallery on the website.

US Airways flies from Phoenix to San Jose International Airport daily. Best times to visit are November through April. This is the high season, so expect rates to be higher.

Seven Falls Hike — April 2011

I had an old friend that used to joke, “you know, I think I’ve lost my speaking ability — between eating my words and biting my tongue… I don’t have much left to say.” That’s what I remembered when we finished our hike to Seven Falls, just outside of Tucson at the foot of the Santa Catalina Mountains.

I had suggested to my hiking friends hours earlier that I thought this Bear Canyon Trail hike was a “fairly easy” one and that sometime we should combine with a loop around Sabino Canyon by connecting to the East Fork/Sycamore Reservoir trails.  Afterwards, I wanted to eat my words. And half way up the trail, as my lungs were heaving and my heart was pounding, I wanted to bite my tongue, but the words just fell out: “Is it very much farther?” I asked some returning hikers. But they reassured me: “It’s just a bit, but it’s well worth it.” That was enough for me!

The hike is only about four miles from the trailhead, if you take the shuttle from the Sabino Canyon visitors center, otherwise it’s about eight miles round trip. My advice: save your money and walk along the road to the trailhead.  By the time you wait for the shuttle bus, you could have walked that far — it’s about a 15-20 minute walk from the center to the trailhead. And when we came back we raced down the trail back just to catch the bus, but missed it anyway.

The trail for the most part, is a combination of seven creek crossings and gradual climbing, up to the Seven Falls. The hike indeed, is moderately easy for most, but I would rate it more “moderate” and less “easy.” Especially the last mile or so, on the southern side of the creek, takes the hiker up at least half of the 800 feet total elevation change. It took us about one and a half hours to the falls, and about 45 minutes back. I would recommend taking more time to enjoy the trail. It’s “well worth it.”

Water from the creek flowing at Seven Falls

Pools of water provide cool dips; Large rocks are perfect for sunbathing

Trees provide some shade for a lunch break

The road to and from the visitors center is an easy access to the trailhead.

 

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