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Vacation Part 2: Cape Cod

The main plan for this vacation was to spend a week on Cape Cod. My parents have been vacationing there every year (well, as far as I know they haven’t missed a year) since I was a kid. Even after they divorced they continued to go, each one going down to the cottage on consecutive weeks, with my sister Katy and me going down for two weeks. We moved among different cottages in Orleans over the years before eventually settling on a duplex near Skaket Beach.

Katy suggested last year that we all go down with my Dad this year, so we were able to rent both sides of the duplex. Dad and I drove down last Saturday, and Katy joined us, with her boyfriend Andrew, and her son I and his daughter A. I haven’t done more than a day trip down to the Cape in over 20 years, so I was looking forward to this.

Cottage Sign

We had gorgeous weather for most of the week – a little humid at the start, and a little cloudy at the end, but considering it could easily have been drivingly hot and humid all week, or raining, I’m not complaining!

We settled into a pattern of Dad going to get us pastries for breakfast in the morning, and we’d each brew coffee on our sides of the cottage. It was relaxing. Katy and Andrew went out for runs or walks in the morning, and sometimes I’d amble down to the beach to look around. We spent some time down on the beach during the week, but we also spent a lot of time going out and doing stuff.

We took a trip down to Chatham, where we stayed for a few years when I was quite young. It’s got a cute downtown with a nifty candy shop, among other stores. On the way back we swung by the beach, which has changed a lot over the last few decades, as storms have washed away the natural breakwater and radically changed the shape of the sands. Once upon a time you could walk in the shallows and pick up starfish, but I don’t think they come in that far anymore. I bet that over the next few decades that erosion will even threaten Chatham Light which stands a few dozen yards from the bluffs over the beach. We’ll see.

Chatham Beach

None of us were terribly familiar with restaurants to go to on the Cape, so by Wednesday we were turning to Yelp to find some places to eat. We found several good ones, such as the Orleans Public House (which we went to three times), and the Rock Harbor Grill.

On Tuesday, everyone else went off on a horseback ride, so Dad and I drove down to Woods Hole to see the Oceanographic Institution (WHOI, pronounced “hooey”). Unfortunately, it took longer to get there than I’d expected, and it turns out the WHOI buildings close down at 4, so we didn’t get to see a lot. But it’s pretty down there. We’ll have to go back earlier in the day someday.

On Wednesday we went to the Edward Gorey House, where we tried another new restaurant, the Optimist Cafe, which was maybe the most popular among us. The Gorey House was quite cool, with lots of samples of his cartoons and original works. The house is the house he lived in, which is also pretty neat. And there’s a scavenger hunt based on the Gashleycrumb Tinies. Well worth the visit. I wish I’d bought one of their tote bags.

Edward Gorey House front door

On Thursday, Debbi came down with her sister Dianne and two of her kids, R and J. The girls, R and A, are about the same age, and the boys, J and I, are also about the same age. After a bit of ice-breaking, they all got along great. We got pizza for lunch, and then went down to the beach for a couple of hours. It was nearly low tide, so the boys dug in the sand for a while, and the girls pulled the floats out to the water and paddled around until it was time to go. Everyone seemed to have a great time!

Andrew and A left Friday morning, and the rest of us made a trip to shop in Wellfleet. We had lunch at the simply-named Bookstore & Restaurant; I’d been going to the bookstore for decades, and always assumed the restaurant was just a basic diner, but it’s actually a quite good restaurant. The bookstore, sadly, is a shadow of its former self; I found a number of neat things there in the past (they once had a fine set of silver age comics, for example), but now it seems to be a barely-organized collection of random stuff. Too bad. Anyway, we also walked over Uncle Tim’s Bridge, which is quite scenic. Well, on the way back I and I (heh) ran down the hill and across the bridge as fast as we could go. I can outrun him, but he’s not far from being able to outrun me. Then we waited for Dad and Katy to catch up.

Saturday it was time to head out, so we packed up and cleaned the cottages and drove home. Dad and I stopped at the Optimist Cafe for brunch, and bludgeoned out way across the Cape through nasty traffic. I visited Mom for the afternoon and then went back to have dinner with Dad and do laundry. Tomorrow Debbi and I fly home.

It was a nice, relaxing trip. Kind of nice to be off the Internet for a week except for my iPhone. I don’t know when I’ll make it down there again, but hopefully before another 20 years go by.

Sitting on Skaket Beach

The Road to Hana

There were too many sights on the road to Hana on Maui to have any hope of covering them all here – we took a lot of photos.

The road is very twisty, with dozens of one-lane bridges slowing down traffic on this two-land highway. Debbi drove the way out, but we stopped a lot to see waterfalls, such as these:

But the views of the ocean and the coast were even more inspiring than the waterfalls and greenery, worth the detour down some of the side roads to get the better views. For instance:

O’heo Gulch is the E-ticket sight on the drive. It’s pretty impressive, although the drive to get there is long. It’s a series of waterfalls with pools you can swim in (though we didn’t bring our suits). Here’s what it looks like from the bottom:

And from the path along the cliffs above:

We didn’t stop to take any pictures on the route back, because it was bumpy and we were tired from the long day and wanted to clear the worst stretch of road before it got dark. If they ever pave it smooth, I could see stopping to view more sights along the way, as I like the wind-swept sides of the Hawaiian islands like there.

So I’ll leave you with a picture of the two of us that some other tourists were nice enough to take:

Dragon’s Teeth

The walk to Dragon’s Teeth at Makalua-Puna Point on Maui is one of the easier walks we did on our vacation. Once you figure out where to park and exactly where to walk, it’s just an amble down a hill at a golf course to the rocky point.

The pressures at this coastal site caused lava to push upwards, creating the “teeth”:

The water has eroded some of the rocks, creating some interesting patterns:

And the view is gorgeous:

There was also this odd circular maze on the ground nearby. Neat, but I haven’t been able to find out anything about it:

Well worth a visit if you’re on Maui and want an easy walk to see some cool stuff.

Our Big Hawaii Vacation, Week 2: The Big Island

After our week on Maui, we took an inter-island flight to the big island, returning there for the third time. (You can find a chronicle of our first trip here, and our second here.) Though we enjoyed our week on Maui, we were even more looking forward to this leg of the trip, since we really like the big island.

As we did with Maui, we used the latest edition of Andrew Doughty’s guidebook, Hawaii: The Big Island Revealed, to help us out on this trip.

Unfortunately, this leg didn’t start out very promisingly: Debbi was disappointed in our rental car, which was a Mercury Grand Marquis, or as she put it, a “grandparent car”. It’s a pretty big boat, and not as nice as the cars we had on Maui (its controls suck, and feel like they’re straight out of the 70s), but it served us reasonably well in the end.

The Hotel

We stayed at the Marriott Waikoloa, which is where we’ve stayed before. It’s a pretty good hotel, but it takes a little getting used to because the rooms are pretty small, smaller than those at the Westin Maui. But we’ve been through this before, it just took a little getting used to. And besides, it’s not like we spend a lot of time in the room.

On the other hand, we like the grounds at the Marriott quite a bit: A deeper pool to swim in, a better selection of breakfast food at the cafe, three hot tubs, and they’re open 24 hours a day. It’s a little further to the beach, but the sunsets are brilliant.

We were definitely spoiled on Maui by the short drive from the Westin to Lahaina. From the Mariott, it’s about 15 minutes to a small town to the north, and 30 minutes to the major town of Kona to the south, which means planning ahead for meals and trips unless you want to eat at the hotel or do a lot of extra driving (which we sometimes did). And meals in the Kohala area where the hotel is are expensive, and not always worth it. Still, I’m not sure I’d want to stay in Kona instead – not as pretty, often much hotter, and sometimes rainy.

Restaurants

The biggest disappointment was learning that several of our favorite restaurants were closed. The big blow for me was that Huli Sue’s BBQ was closed for remodeling (nope, no mention at all on their web site). I had been hoping to eat at least a couple of meals there, having loved it the first time. And Jackie Rey’s Ohana Grill was also closed for remodeling. Lastly, the Aloha Theatre Cafe has apparently gone out of business (I’m not certain of this, but their phone was disconnected and they had a big “closed” note at their front door), which is a bummer since we loved their breakfast last time we visited. Really disappointing all around.

Well, on the bright side Jackie Rey’s reopened Friday evening, and we went there for dinner, enjoying their terrific cocktails and rich dessert.

We also discovered some new restaurants: In Hilo we really liked the Hilo Bay Cafe, which had terrific onion rings and mixed drinks, and the entrees were pretty tasty too!

South of Kona we loved Annie’s Island Fresh Burgers: Also fantastic onion rings, wonderful burgers, and killer chocolate pudding for dessert. We went twice. This was one restaurant not mentioned in Doughty’s guidebook, but it’s the best restaurant we discovered on this trip. Highly recommended.

Turtles

We drove down to the Punalu’u black sand beach, a pretty long trip from our hotel, but worth it because, as advertised, it’s loaded with sea turtles: We saw four lying on the beach sunning themselves, and several others swimming in the tide pools dining on seaweed. Really cool.

We also saw a couple of turtles swimming along the shore at the beach by our hotel. One of them I followed down the beach, and he turned, reared up out of the water looking at me, then went back down and swam out to sea. I love sea turtles, even if they’re not exactly the prettiest animals when looking at them face-to-face.

We also walked to Kiholo Bay, which was a disappointment: We saw one sea turtle (okay, that part wasn’t disappointing, but I was expecting more), and the walk there – which I’d expected to be on either dirt or maybe a gravel road, was actually on a difficult mix of gravel-sized rock and sand. I hear this bay can be a terrific place to visit, but on this day it was just a bay.

Coffee and Donkey Balls

We always visit a couple of coffee farms while we’re on the big island, since Kona coffee is pretty much the best in the world (apologies to the rest of the coffee-growing world). We bought several pounds at Greenwell Farms, including their chocolate macadamia nut (I’ve also ordered from them online, so check them our if you want some Kona coffee), and another pound at Bay View Farm.

We also picked up a bunch of chocolate-covered macadamia nuts at the Donkey Ball Factory. We later learned the location in Kainaliu has split from other locations selling Keoki’s Donkey Balls from Surfin’ Ass. A little confusing, but they’re all good.

We also made a return trip to the Place of Refuge, which is one of the most impressive sites on the island.

Saddle Road and Hilo

Some years ago it was against many rental car agreements to drive over Saddle Road, which goes over the center of the island between the Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea volcanoes, but no more, so we decided to drive it on the way to the town of Hilo on the other side of the island. Other than a few miles on the Kona side of the island, the road is a well-paved 2-lane road (sometimes wider), and you only get up to about 5000 feet, so it’s a pretty easy drive. (Even the bumpier parts are quite navigable in any standard car.)

There’s not a lot to see up there, but the stark landscape is rather pretty, gradually transforming to the lush greenery of the Hilo side of the island. But it was something new to do.

The only comic book store on either Maui or the big island is Syzygy Comics in Hilo, and I wanted to stop by. It turns out they’re only open 3 days a week for part of the day, and they were closed when we went by. Looking through the window their store is only half-full, with some long boxes of back issues and a few graphic novels and perhaps new comics. My guess is they mainly serve locals who want to buy new comics and that there’s not enough of a market on the big island for the sort of store I’m used to in the bay area. Kind of a bummer, though.

We did stop in a couple of nice bookstores and got some shave ice in Hilo. Then we drove down into Puna to drive along the coast and take in the sights along the ocean, before coming back to Hilo for dinner.

By the time we were done with dinner it was dark out. Usually we drive back from Hilo along the north coast, which is very scenic but has many twists and turns due to the river gulches you have to drive over. And of course it’s not scenic at all in the dark. So we decided to take Saddle Road back. We were worried briefly about visibility as we ascended through the clouds, but it actually went perfectly smoothly (and there was a smattering of other traffic which could have helped if we’d stalled out or something), and I think it cut at least 45 minutes off our return trip. Quite a good idea, I think.

Mo’okini Heiau

We’ve visited many of the historic sites on the big island before, but one of the ones we haven’t been to is the Kohala Historical Sites State Monument on the north side of the island, which comprises Mo’okini Heiau (an ancient place of bloody sacrifice), and the birthplace of Kamehameha the Great, who united the islands in the late 18th century.

Although only a mile and a half from the small Upolu Airport, the road there is a poorly-maintained dirt trail, and at times it can be a tough drive even for a 4-wheel-drive vehicle. My hope was that we could drive a third of the way, to the end of the airport runway, and walk the rest of the way, and that’s exactly what we did. Although the road was in much better condition than that described in this account, I still wouldn’t have wanted to drive it in 2WD. Indeed, we encountered two other cars which turned around and gave up – and no other hikers. (We did see a 4WD vehicle taking in the scenery, though.)

The hike is hot, humid, and windy, but at least it’s mostly right along the coast, so it’s pretty.

The Heiau itself is a very impressive large stone construct on a sloped plain of matted grass-like plants amidst the brown, wind-swept landscape. It’s pretty eerie, although not quite enough to be sppoky. Kamehameha’s birthplace (which I suspect is actually the town near where he was actually born) is a collection of stone walls with not a lot to see. Neither landmark has any real displays describing the site, so you need to read about it elsewhere.

These are not essential viewing, but if you appreciate the stark beauty of the north shore, as I do, and enjoy going for an unusual hike, then it’s worth a look. Allow about 3 hours and bring plenty of water.

We rewarded ourselves with Tropical Dreams ice cream in Hawi after our successful trip.

Other Things

Our rental car agent claimed that “everything is cheaper on the big island”, compared to Maui. In fact gas was 10¢/gallon more expensive on the big island compared to Maui, which is a bummer since one does a lot more driving on the big island. We made a point of gassing up at Costco whenever possible. (Gas is somewhat cheaper in Hilo, but still a bit more expensive than Maui.)

We dropped in at Kona Bay Books, an impressive used bookstore even by mainland standards (and maybe the largest bookstore on the island now that Borders has closed), and Debbi bought a number of things, while I found one book. I always feel a little guilty buying used books in Hawaii, since I’m effectively taking them out of circulation there by bringing them back to the mainland.

We made a point of getting shave ice several times in Kona – great to stave off overheating while shopping there. We each picked up a number of souvenirs and trinkets in Kona, mine mostly turtle-related. Debbi bought a really nice necklace.

We mostly lounged by the pool in the mornings, but the last two mornings we hit the beach instead. We learned that a good chunk of sand at our hotel’s beach had been washed away by the tsunami last spring (the one that devastated northern Japan). I wonder whether it’ll come back any time soon? We only had to go out a few dozen feet to see some small coral clusters with some tropical fish swimming around – and that was just with goggles and no fins. Apparently the sights were much more impressive if you went farther out with snorkeling gear. Neither of us is especially excited to see an eel, though!

All-in-all we had a great vacation to both islands, even if we had a few disappointments along the way. 2 weeks is a really long time to be away from home, though (it’s my longest vacation since I finished school, actually), and we were both happy to head home to our kitties, which took the edge of being sad to leave Hawaii.

I’m sure we’ll go back in the next few years.

(I’ll also post some photos from our trip in further entries over the next couple of weeks.)

Our Big Hawaii Vacation, Week 1: Maui

This year, with Debbi having a sabbatical from work, we planned a two-week vacation to Hawaii, from which we returned earlier this week. It was great.

We left on Monday, September 12, landing in Maui. We’d never been to Maui before, although we’d been to the big island twice, but we’d always heard good things about Maui and figured a 2-week trip was a good chance to try a new island.

As usual for our Hawaii trips, we used Andrew Doughty’s guidebook for the island, in this case Maui Revealed, to key our exploration of the island. It’s excellent and highly recommended, as all his big island books have been.

The Hotel

We stayed at the Westin Maui, a nice hotel right on the beach and only a few miles’ drive from Lahaina, the main town in west Maui. We liked the rooms – nice and spacious, comfortable bed – and our room overlooked the central pool area. The Westin’s pools consisted of five pools and a hot tub, plus an impressive slide. Despite this we weren’t bowled over by their pools: None of them were more than four feet deep, the single hot tub was often filled, and the water was a little too cold for our preference. Still, we spent most morning by and in the pool.

The beach-front location was nice, too, although we didn’t avail ourselves of it except to watch sunsets. Being right next door to Whaler’s Village was nice for some shopping and meals, though. The self-parking lot fills up almost every night, but to their credit the Westin valet parks cars in such circumstances for free, which is pretty convenient.

The biggest downside to the Westin was the lack of good breakfast options: The hotel’s restaurants were even more overpriced than usual for Hawaii, and the coffee stand had a decided lack of variety in the pastries they offered.

While I wouldn’t say I was especially impressed by the Westin, I’d consider staying there again. The conveniences it did offer, and the proximity to Lahaina, were both quite nice.

The Road to Hana

The big “thing to do” on Maui is drive the road to Hana, the small town on the eastern edge of Maui. This is an all-day trip, because the highway is a narrow, twisty road through lush forests, whose bridges are almost entirely one-lane (so you have to yield to oncoming traffic), with frequent stops to view waterfalls, and a few neat detours to the ocean. The journey is the experience: Hana is a pretty small town (which we didn’t even stop in).

We were visiting during the dry season, so the waterfalls were not in their full splendor, but they were still pretty neat. We also stopped at a botanical garden, and drove out a couple of peninsulas to the ocean. Then we went to O’heo Gulch, site of the “Seven Sacred Pools” (a publicity name), with perhaps the most impressive waterfalls of the trip.

The drive back through the southern end of the island is considerably trickier than the drive out, because there’s a 10-mile stretch of road which is either very roughly paved, or completely unpaved. So progress is maybe 10-20 miles per hour, depending on how bad a particular stretch of road is. We were very glad we managed to make it through this stretch before sunset. The southern side of the island is dry and stark, but pretty in its own ways, and I’m not sorry we did it. It’s perfectly drivable in a 2-wheel-drive car, though, and it’s not full of potholes; it’s just very rough. Any modern car should be able to do the drive safely.

Restaurants

By far the best restaurant we went to on the island was Flatbread in the little town of Pa’ia, an awesome pizza restaurant which Doughty raved about in his book, and the raves were well deserved. We visited it on the way back from Hana, and then again later in the week, and it was delicious both times. Their drinks are great, too! I see now they have other locations, in the northeastern US, which I’ll have to check out next time I’m there.

Our other favorite place was Anthony’s Coffee, also in Pa’ia, where we had a yummy breakfast before driving to Hana. They also have tasty frappuccino-type drinks, and we got a delicious banana chocolate chip muffin there one day.

The other restaurant we visited twice was Leilani’s on the Beach, in the Whaler’s Village next to our hotel. You couldn’t beat the location, but their food was quite good, and their drinks pretty deadly.

Java Jazz & Soup Nutz is a very quirky restaurant with eclectic decor and yummy burgers and fries, one of the less expensive places to eat in west Maui, but worth a visit just for the food. The decor reminded me of a few of the odder places I patronized when I lived in New Orleans.

Shows

Warren and Annabelle’s came highly recommended by Doughty: It’s dinner (yummy drinks and a collection of tasty appetizers) in a fancy parlor lounge with tunes performed on piano by the resident ghost (Annabelle), followed by a magic show. Warren’s show is supposed to be amazing, but he doesn’t perform there all the time, and we saw a couple of other magicians. The show was good, but it did leave me wondering what about Warren’s show was so amazing. Still, a nice evening out.

Nakalele Blowhole

I think we agreed that our favorite adventure on Maui was to the Nakalele blowhole, a few miles off the highway, but we took the alternate route through what Doughty calls the “acid war zone”: The water had been eating away at the rocks along the way, making it look like a war zone between armies fighting with acid. The route is a little tricky to figure out, and the climb down the hill to the war zone takes some patience, but the landscape is eerie – someone needs to film some scenes in a movie or TV show here – and the blowhole itself – water shooting up through a hole in the shoreline rock when a big wave crashes under it – is also nifty. It’s enough of a hike that you feel like you’ve really accomplished something, and the scenery is worth the effort.

Sunset from Haleakala

One afternoon we drove up to the top of the Haleakala volcano to watch the sunset (several people had recommended sunset as less crowded than sunrise, which made sense to us, not really wanting to get up at 3 am to go see a sunrise 3 hours later). The drive is not too tough – the switchbacks are pretty gradual (it’s easier than it looks when you look at the road on a map) – and we stopped at two of the overlooks to see the lovely red erosion valley in the volcano along the way.

Sunset from 10,000 feet is indeed quite pretty, the red sun sinking below the clouds. And then it gets quite cold very quickly, dropping from about 63°F to 52° in less than half an hour. Brr! We didn’t linger, though, and made it back to the bottom only a little after total darkness. It was worth the trip.

Other Stuff

We always pack a lot into our Hawaii trips: We enjoy sitting by the pool in the morning, but then we like to get out and see things. Some other things we did:

  • Went to I’ao Valley to see the I’ao Needle. A pretty place with some nice views.
  • Walked to Dragon’s Teeth, which were not as impressive as I’d expected, although the odd maze left there by (I presume) the ancient Hawaiians was pretty neat.
  • Visited some historic sites in Lahaina. Some of the old pictures on display are worth the visit.
  • Drove to the upcountry and visited a couple of small towns, just to check them out and fill time before going to sunset on the volcano.
  • Drove to south Maui. Not really necessary unless you’re going to a beach to swim or snorkel, as it’s almost entirely hotels. But the lava field at the very end of the road is pretty impressive; if you’ve never been to the big island, go here, and then realize that vast swaths of the big island look much like this: Rolling fields of blackened, rippled rock laid down in just the last few hundred years.

I was a little disappointed that Maui doesn’t have a used book store (the one in Lahaina apparently closed earlier this year), nor any comic book stores, as I always make a point of visiting such stores to see if I can find anything unusual (or valuable-yet-underpriced). Indeed, I think the only bookstore on the island of any significant size is the Barnes & Noble in Lahaina (now that Borders has gone out of business). But shopping at these places wasn’t a big part of my plans; it was just a little weird.

We also had a mishap with the car: When we came out from Warren & Annabelle’s, the car – a Pontiac G6 – told us one tire was close to flat (only 11 PSI), despite having been sitting in a parking lot for over 4 hours. We stopped at a gas station and inflated it, but the car still complained. So we exchanged it the next morning, which turned out to be easy. The fellow behind the counter said, “Wow, I didn’t think we still had any of these.” Apparently Avis picked up a bunch of G6s cheap a few years ago, so they’re being rotated out, and we had one of the last ones. We got a Chevy Impala as a replacement, which was practically the same car in its feel and features, and we were happy and impressed with how easy the exchange was.

In sum, we had a good time on Maui, although overall we didn’t like it as much as our previous trips to the big island, and were looking forward to the second half of the trip, on that island. Maui’s a lot smaller, and there’s not as much to do there, at least not the sorts of things we enjoy doing. I feel like we did nearly everything there is to do on Maui in a week, whereas we still had things we hadn’t done on the big island after two trips there. We’ll probably go back sometime, but likely not for a whole week.

I’ll chronicle the big island half of our trip in my next entry.

Some photos from our trip, posted in separate entries:

  1. Views from our hotel at the Westin Maui
  2. Dragon’s Teeth
  3. The Road to Hana
  4. The Nakalele blowhole
  5. Banyan Tree Park in Lahaina

Rebuilding Downtowns

Interesting article at the San Jose Mercury News today on the rebuilding of Sunnyvale Town Center having stalled out, and how the only piece that’s thriving – and having a hard time of it even then because of all the surrounding construction – is the one block of Murphy Street. A few choice quotes:

In the 1970s, Sunnyvale razed its downtown and built a shopping mall, complete with a Macy’s. It kept one block of Murphy Avenue intact, and that street—crowded with cafes and boutiques—thrived, becoming one of the valley’s coolest hangouts while people bypassed the sun-starved mall.

and:

Now the mayor and council have to deal with one of the largest redevelopment fiascoes after the half-completed project fell into foreclosure proceedings and contractors walked off the job last year.

Today, Murphy Avenue sits next to a mishmash of vacant lots, nearly completed buildings and the steel skeletons of others. Orange tape stops shoppers from pulling into never-finished parking lots.

I think my own city of Mountain View really dodged a bullet regarding its own downtown. It probably helped that in the 1970s and early 1980s Mountain View had not one, not two, but three malls: The huge strip mall San Antonio Center (which still exists today and even thrives despite seeming hopeless outdated in its layout), the Mayfield Mall (now a defunct office building and itself the subject of ongoing redevelopment efforts), and the Old Mill (now the site of two townhome complexes), so turning Mountain View’s downtown Castro Street – which at the time I hear was a wasteland – into another large mall would have been redundant. Castro Street’s renaissance apparently came from redevelopment funds in the wake of the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, when it was turned from a 4-lane thoroughfare to a 2-lane pedestrian shopping district.

Mountain View has been one of the smarter cities I know of about land use (no doubt some would disagree, but looking at some other cities the bar has been set pretty low), and development of downtown has been gradual and considered. Castro Street has three forms of public transit (bus, light rail, and CalTrain) that stop at one end of the street, and there is a huge amount of lot and garage parking behind the storefronts, avoiding that strip mall look. Castro Street has become a lot more interesting just in the 10 years I’ve lived here, as the vast numbers of Asian restaurants which supposedly kept the area afloat in the 80s have thinned out and been replaced by a more diverse selection. It’s very nice.

But then there’s Sunnyvale.

Sunnyvale’s main shopping district other than downtown is El Camino Real, and without a large mall as a shopping anchor it’s perhaps no surprise that the city decided to redevelop downtown into a mall in the 70s. But large malls have large problems as the years wear on: They’re not modular, like downtowns are, so renovating and updating them is difficult (and expensive, if the whole mall has to be updated at once). And if the mall falls so far behind the times that no one wants to renovate it, then your only option is to bulldoze it (wasteful) and redevelop it (expensive), possibly as another large mall project (really expensive). This could be the ultimate fate of other nearby large malls, such as Westfield Valley Fair (a traditional indoor mall) and Santana Row (an outdoor pedestrian mall with housing on the upper floors), although Westfield has worked hard to keep Valley Fair up-to-date, and Santana Row is less than 10 years old. Also-nearby Cupertino Square (formerly Vallco) is also a traditional indoor mall, and it’s been struggling to stay afloat as long as I’ve been here. The current owners are making a good go of it, but I wouldn’t lay money that it will still be open in another decade.

So Sunnyvale’s decision to redevelop downtown as a second mall is expensive, risky, and probably dooms the city to having to go through the whole thing again in another generation. Now, they do seem to be trying to apply the Santana Row model (or something closer to it) this time, but it’s yet to be seen whether that model will be more durable over the long haul.

Meanwhile, Murphy Street is already an unqualified success (its biggest problem is not enough parking – and it’s only one block long!), and redeveloping the mall space as a traditional pedestrian street-oriented shopping center might be less expensive (or at least the expense could be amortized over time as the streets are built out gradually), less risky, and more enduring, while perhaps being more successful in the long run. Sunnyvale does have a problem in that it has few places to locate large anchor stores like Macy’s, but it’s not too hard to envision a creative solution that places a large department store venue in the midst of smaller stores.

Given the straits that Sunnyvale seems to be in now, I wonder whether they might be better off razing large chunks of the work that’s already been done, and heading in a completely different direction. Of course, I don’t know what financial problems that might raise for the city, given the money that’s already been borrowed for the current project, but at some point they may have to just see that as a sunk cost and that the current project just isn’t worth pursuing.

I would be amazed if they pursued that route, and no doubt they’ll at least wait until the economy improves to see if the current project becomes viable again (although the Merc article says they might consider going partway on that). But ultimately I think it’s a shame that they went the mall route at all, since traditional downtowns are now in vogue, and have shown themselves to be enduring over long spans of time through changing demographics – a feat that few malls have managed to achieve.

Return to the Big Island

It’s been a few days since we got back from our second trip to Hawaii. (Our first trip was back in 2003.) We flew out on Tuesday September 22, and went back to the big island of Hawaii, since after our first week there we figured there was at least another week’s worth of stuff to see. We used The Big Island Revealed as our guidebook again, picking up the latest edition, and again it was quite good.

Tuesday we woke up at 5 am PDT, caught a 9 am flight from San Francisco, and got in to the Kona airport at 11 am HST (there’s a 3-hour time shift at this time of year compared to the west coast). We unfortunately made the mistake of not eating enough early in the day, and even though we had a good-sized lunch, I ended up worn down and with a splitting headache by the evening. A good-sized dinner helped, but it made the later afternoon a bit of a downer, especially as we were shopping in downtown Kona in the heat and humidity. So basically: Not enough food, and doing too much on the day of our arrival. (I was also bummed to find that the Big Island Steak House in the nearby Kings Shops had closed since our last visit. Their food was good and plentiful, and their drinks were terrific, but I guess business just wasn’t good enough to stay afloat.) We ended up eating at Roy’s instead, which I think is okay, but rather pricy even by Hawaii standards.

Incidentally, we stayed again at the Waikoloa Beach Marriott, about 25 miles north of Kona, in the middle of the resort coast. While there isn’t much on the resort coast other than, well, resorts, it is a convenient place from which to get to several other parts of the island. We liked the hotel when we stayed there before, and they’ve renovated since then, so we were happy with it the second time, too.

Wednesday we started the day – as we almost always did on this trip – with breakfast and coffee from the coffee bar, followed by several hours in and by the hotel pools. Then we headed out in the car (okay, the boat, as we’d rented a Ford Expedition, which felt huge to drive, although it wasn’t bad once we got used to it) and headed into the north district of Kohala. There’s something about the land on the north coast that appeals to me: The grassy lands which gradually change to rainforest, the houses and towns and communities. Not a bad place to live, I imagine, so long as you don’t mind an hour’s drive to the nearest “major” city.

We stopped for lunch in the larger town of Waimea before heading north where we did the hike down the hill to the black sand beach in Pololu Valley. It was hot, muggy, and a steep hike over uneven terrain – and still worth it when we got to the bottom. We did this hike last time too, and perhaps next time we’ll go to one of the more accessible black sand beaches instead. On the way back we stopped at Tropical Dreams in Hawi for some ice cream. Alas, I was sad to see that the Kohala Book Shop closed earlier this year, as they were a nifty used book store in Kapa’au where I found some neat stuff on our last trip. But I imagine trying to run a used bookstore in a remote part of a tropical island is a difficult feat to pull off for a long time.

The black sand beach viewed from the trail down
(click on icons to view
a larger image)

Most of our days ended with us heading back to the hotel to shower since we would get pretty grubby on our travels, and put on clean clothes for dinner. On this day we drove up to the Cafe Pesto, which I think is the closest good restaurant to our hotel which isn’t on a resort, about 10 miles away. We think they’ve moved since last time we went there, to a larger venue with a larger menu. They’re still good, though. We got mixed drinks at almost every dinner on our vacation, which ain’t bad.

Thursday was one of our two forays over to the larger town of Hilo, which is unlike anything on the island, as it appears to have been mostly built in the 40s and 50s, and not significantly updated since then, so it almost looks like something out of an old movie. On the way we stopped at Huli Sue’s in Waimea for lunch, which I think may be my favorite restaurant we ate at on this trip. Very good BBQ, very good milkshakes.

The weather on this trip was funky: A little overcast at the hotel when we left, but cloudy and lightly raining in Waimea, which is up at 2500 feet. As we drove east towards Hilo, we drove through a heavy rain squall, and then into sunshine along the north coast. By the time we got to Hilo it was overcast again. Then we drove down into the eastern district of Puna, which we hadn’t really gone to last time, and which was mostly overcast and raining. It also, oddly, had one of the widest stretches of highway on the whole island. Maybe Puna is more built up than it appears and the lanes are needed for the travel to and from Hilo.

Originally, I’d planned for us to see some of the sights along the Puna coast, but before we’d set out I’d checked our guidebook’s web page to see where the current lava flow is, and it turns out we could get to it from the Puna side of the island. So we drove down towards the flow, and soon saw a giant steam plume where the lava was flowing into the ocean, at the end of a grinded lava road the state maintained. We headed down to the road where we were confronted with signs saying it was only open from 5-8 pm, and it was currently about 3 pm. Unsure what to do we waited a little while, and then several cars blew past us, and one guy in a coffee truck waved us to follow him.

It turns out that the road is open all the time (it’s a funky mix of ground-down lava and old road from the town of Kalapana, which was mostly destroyed by the lava flow about 20 years ago), but the actual walk to the viewing site is on private land, and due to budget issues the state only has guides for a limited time each day, around sunset when the viewing is best, so the viewing area didn’t open until 5. However, a number of vendors set up at the end of the road to sell art, coffee, flashlights, etc., and arrive early to get the good spots. So we drove up along the Puna coast, through the rainforest, and stopped to see the ocean several times, taking some good pictures of the blue water, and occasionally getting rained on. That killed time until we returned around 5, and hiked out to the viewing area.

It was not a terrific view, as we were about half a mile from the lava flow, so our view was quite distant. (I guess much of the land between the viewing area and the flow is various private lands so we couldn’t get any closer for legal reasons.) But as the sun set we were able to get some pretty good pictures and camera-films of the plume and the glow of the lava, occasionally seeing some lava flow over the edge on our side. We’d completely missed out on seeing lava last time we were here, so it was great to see some of it this time. Maybe next visit we’ll get even closer! On the drive back we stopped for dinner at Pescatore, which is a pretty good traditional Italian restaurant. I seem to recall the food being a little better last time we were here, but it was still good.

The glow from the lava flow, a little after sunset

Friday we decided to take things a little easier after our adventures, although it didn’t quite turn out that way.

We had lunch in Kona, at Jackie Rey’s Ohana Grill, which was quite good and I think was Debbi’s favorite restaurant on the trip. Then we drove down to Kona coffee country, and bought coffee at both Greenwell Farms and Bay View Farm. Kona coffee is plenty expensive ($25-$30 per pound), but it’s soooooo good, so we bought several pounds. Everyone at both farms were very friendly, but we also learned from these visits (among others) that the recession has been hitting Hawaii hard, as tourism is really down. We’d noticed this at our hotel, too, as the pool was much quieter than last time. I imagine the coffee farms rely on tourists quite a bit, so I hope they can make it.

I made a friend at Bay View, a brightly-colored gecko who was licking the dry coffee creamer, and of which I got some good pictures and a video.

Friendly gecko

I thought it would be neat to do an easier hike, going down to the natural “arch city” along the cost in Honaunau, north of the Place of Refuge (which we visited last time). Unfortunately, it wasn’t so easy. First we had trouble spotting the entrance to the gravel path through the forest leading to the coast, although we found it after a little trial and error. The path is a little tricky to follow, but not too bad. But when we got to the coast, it was quite rocky, and we had to be careful to avoid spots where the ocean waves might splash up on to us (and, more importantly, try to drag us into the ocean). We hiked maybe half a mile along the coast, and saw a couple of arches, but we couldn’t get close enough to get a real good view of any of them, although seeing the water ebb and flow in them, and sometimes blow out a hole at the other end, was pretty neat. But overall it was less impressive than I’d hoped.

Water flowing back into one of the stone arches

The real excitement came when we turned around to head back (rather than continuing the 3-mile circle the guidebook recommends); we couldn’t find the path back! At one point we thought we spotted the path, so we forged into the forest, but it didn’t look familiar.

And then I walked into a spider web. And got a big-ass brown spider crawling over me (maybe an inch and a half from leg to leg).

And Debbi hates spiders.

So I was frantically trying to brush the thing off of me – off of my brown Hawaiian shirt – and it took several tries before I did so. And then we tried to find our way back to the coast, but as I looked around, it seemed like every path had an even bigger spider in a giant web blocking the way (some of them were bright blue or green, but some of them were also twice as big as the one I’d already met). Yes, we were trapped in The Grove of Big-Ass Spiders.

Finally I calmed down enough to look around and figure out how we’d gotten in, so we got back to the coast. Debbi finally noticed that we hadn’t gone back far enough, so we walked back the rest of the way, found the path back to the road, and made it out.

But that was a lot more excitement for a lot less pay-off than we’d hoped. My guess is that the arches look a lot more impressive from a boat in the ocean. Oh well.

After this we were pretty much done for the day, so we drove back to the hotel, had dinner at a nearby restaurant, and collapsed for the evening. Whew!

Despite this, on Saturday we headed out early – the one day we didn’t spend by the pool – for the big adventure I’d most wanted to go on: Driving to South Point, which itself is neat enough, and then hiking an hour each way to the green sand beach. We’d skipped this hike last time since Debbi was recovering from a sprained ankle and we didn’t want to risk something happening on that hike. On the drive down we stopped for breakfast at the Aloha Theatre Cafe, whose french toast breakfast with coconut syrup was totally yummy, and which we highly recommend.

The hike, it turns out, is not so bad; the ground is not very even, but we made pretty good time, and it was always pretty easy to figure out which way to go. We were also fortunate that the wind was not so bad, and that it was overcast and cooler than it might have been. Once we got to the beach, which is at the bottom of a steep incline, we tried to figure out how to get down to it. Some folks we passed told us to go to a sign on the near side, climb down some rocks, and then take a path around the edge of the incline to the beach. We found the sign, but going down – and, more importantly, back up – the rocks looked pretty daunting, so we passed. Instead we walked around to the top of the cliff to get a better look. Well, when we did so, we saw people scaling the cliff pretty easily to get up and down. It turns out there’s a short ladder at the top to get you down the toughest part, and then you can work your way down the sandstone along some inclines, and use some stairs people have carved into the sandstone to get down. It’s not trivial, but it was actually pretty easy once we saw what to do. So we went down to the beach and hung out for a while, marveling at the green sand, and watching swimmers and even one diver enjoying the water.

The green sand beach from the top of the cliff

On the walk back we passed several people going to the beach. At one point two women in a jeep asked us if it was worth it, and we said yes! We made it back to the car, a little tired but very happy to have made the trip, and drove back to the hotel (well, we stopped to buy some donkey balls at Surfin Ass on the way). We were pretty exhausted, so we had dinner at the hotel restaurant, which was okay, although rather overpriced. (Saturday they give 30% off your bill, which helped.) On the bright side, it was more food than we could actually eat! Afterwards we changed and went down to the hot tub, where we chatted with one couple for a while before they went in, and then were joined by a couple of women – who turned out to be the same women who’d passed us on the way back from the green sand beach and asked us whether it was worth it! They agreed that it was. Apparently they’d spend 5 days on Maui and then 5 days on the big island, and had driven all over the place on both islands, and this night was the one time they’d really used the hotel pools at all – and they were leaving the next day. One of them wondered if they could stay another day, and the other one said the “marginal value” of staying wouldn’t equal the cost, which amused me since I hear the term “marginal value” mainly in baseball analysis; she said she’s an accountant, which makes sense. I guess everyone uses the geek-speak from their profession in humorous contexts from time to time.

Sunday we used as an off-day, driving into Kona and eating and shopping for most of the afternoon. The weather was overcast and cool, so it wasn’t too uncomfortable to be walking from store to store. Our one disappointment was that we’d wanted to go back to Jackie Rey’s for lunch, but they’re closed for lunch on Sundays. Alas.

Monday we drove back to Hilo, or nearly so, having lunch at Huli Sue’s, and visiting the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, which was the last major sight on the island I really wanted to see. It’s beautiful! A lot of vertical walking to get from the road to the garden, though, but they have lots of tropical plants and flowers, a waterfall, and a beautiful coastal view. Well worth the entry fee, I thought. We also drove to Akaka Falls, which was okay, but not really a must-see.

In the evening Debbi wanted to do some shopping nearby. She ended up buying a pendant at the Pearl Factory, and getting a much-larger-than-average pearl in the bargain. Good deal! We had dinner, lay in one of the lounge chairs on the patio for a while, and finished the evening with a dip in the hot tub.

Tuesday it was time to head home. Sob! We got to the airport way early, so we had plenty of time to cool our heels and be sad to be leaving. On the other hand, we blew through security in no time at all, which beats standing in long lines. Unlike our trip back from Boston in June, this flight went completely smoothly, landing in San Francisco a little early, and we were home by 10 pm. We both took Wednesday off to catch up on important stuff after the vacation, and it was nice to see the cats again (Newton was so excited he kept waking us up overnight, which was not appreciated).

But now we’re already looking forward to going back again. Not sure when that’s going to happen, but hopefully before another 6 years have passed!

Above the black sand beach

That's all folks!

A Cool Day in Half Moon Bay

For the long Memorial Day weekend, Debbi and I came up with several things to keep ourselves busy without, you know, being busy. So Saturday we made one of our occasional trips over to Half Moon Bay for brunch at the Main Street Grill, poking our heads into some book stores (used stores Ink Spell Books and Ocean Books, as well as Bay Books), and then walking along the coastside trail.

During the summer it’s tricky to figure out where to park to get to the trail without having to pay for parking, since all the state beaches are charging now. Their charges are a pretty good deal if you’re going to spend the whole day on the coast, since admission to one beach lets you in to the others, too. But if you’re just walking for an hour or two, then the price (which I think is up to around $7.00 these days) is a bit steep. Fortunately over time I’ve found more and more free places to park, as there really is just lots of parking around. You just have to look.

It’s the height of wildflower season along the coast, so it was very colorful. But it was also overcast and a bit chilly, so we were glad we brought a sweatshirt and jacket. But otherwise it was rather pleasant.

We also saw a bunch of neat stuff. For instance, a cat on a fence who seemed to be mousing, but when I went over to get her attention she jumped down and climbed right into my arms, and was happy to jump into Debbi’s arms, too:

Friendly cat with Michael

Friendly cat with Debbi

Friendly cat loves everybody!

The birds were out in force, too: Lots of red-winged blackbirds, and a few yellow birds I hadn’t seen before:

Red-winged blackbird

Yellow bird

Plus some bunny rabbits:

Bunny rabbit!

(All photos by Debbi using her new camera, except for you, know, the two photos of Debbi.)

It never did clear up, but it was a pleasant walk all-in-all. We grabbed some iced coffees for the drive home, where it was sunny and warm. Then we collapsed for the afternoon until heading to Cafe Borrone for the evening.

It’s always fun to head to the coast for half a day.

On the bluffs
(Click for larger image)

Vegas FTW

Debbi and I are back from a three-day trip to Las Vegas. This time around we went to meet up with her parents, who are spending the week there. We flew in Sunday and had an evening to ourselves before they arrived, and had our usual dinner at Bally’s Steakhouse, which was delicious as always. The waiters there are also terrific: Low-key yet entertaining. Ours introduced himself and said, “I’m here to bring you whatever you want.” Whatever we wanted was an appetizer of beef short rib ravioli, two steaks, sides of asparagus and onion rings, and a very rich chocolate hazelnut praline dessert. Oh, and two glasses of wine. We rarely indulge in these sorts of restaurants, but we do like this one.

Monday morning we gambled at the MGM Grand, where Debbi hit a royal flush on a nickel video poker machine:

Debbi's royal flush at video poker

Since it was a nickel slot it wasn’t the ginormous win it could have been, but still: It may be years before either of us hits another of those.

Deb’s parents, Jerry and Sis, arrived in the early afternoon. They’re not the big walkers that Debbi and I are – we regularly walk all over the Strip and are usually pretty pooped by the end of the day – so we cut back on our perambulations some. We did head up to Treasure Island where we had dinner at Kahunaville, an island-themed restaurant we discovered a few years back. They were a bit short on staff so we had a longer wait than we’d expected, but the food was still good. Jerry got a huge drink in a souvenir glass which we all shared, in addition to our own drinks.

Then we went to Harrah’s to see comedian Rita Rudner, who was very funny. I think I’ve seen a little of her in the past, but not a whole lot; her material focuses on gender differences. If you enjoy stand-up comedy, I recommend her.

We went to a few other hotels to see some of the sights. After brunch on Tuesday at the Bellagio cafe, we visited their conservatory, which right now has an autumn theme, like so:

The Bellagio conservatory in fall

We also went to the Flamingo where we looked in on their reserve of birds and fish, and their elaborate network of pools. Next time we go during warm weather (highs were in the 80s every day we were there) we might stay at the Flamingo and use their pools.

Debbi and Michael at the Flamingo hotel

On the gambling side of things, Debbi picked up Pai Gow Poker, since she’d been getting frustrated with not winning much at the slots or video poker machines. She thinks she’s found her game now, since she was winning or breaking even almost every time she played. I played too and finished up slightly at the game. We played a couple different (though slight) variants of the game, though they’re all basically the same. At one table a fellow sat down and made a big bet on the bonus circle and was dealt a royal flush, which won him five hundred dollars instantly! Yoiks!

For myself, I played regular poker, and had my winningest time ever in Vegas, even factoring in a poor first day there. I mostly crushed the low-limit games, which was satisfying since I ought to be able to crush those games at this point. I also played my first casino session of no-limit poker (at a 1/2 table) and won there, too, mainly on the strength of a 20-minute run of good hands. I saw a few tables where the betting was crazy before the flop, but this table was relatively sane: Some loose calls before the flop, but a fair respect for raises after the flop. I’ve been nervous about playing no-limit in the casino for a while, since I’m sure it can be very different from our fairly disciplined home games that I play in (for much lower stakes – on a really bad night you might lose all of $60, but that’s pretty rare), but this makes me think perhaps I should be playing no limit more often.

As usual, it was a trip of good food and good times. I think Deb’s parents had a good time, too. But certain furry friends were very happy to have us get back home:

Happy to be home

Good Time to be a Boston Sports Fan

Last November I had dinner with my friend Bruce, and he told me that he’d bought a 5-game package of Celtics tickets. He said his friends asked him, “What the heck did you go and do that for?” The Celtics have been a mediocre team for a long time, and didn’t seem to have prospects of getting much better anytime soon.

By the time I saw Bruce, the Celtics had already completed the trade for Kevin Garnett, and Bruce said his friends then were saying, “You know, if you don’t think you’re going to use all those tickets, I could take some of them off your hands…” Bruce assured them that he’d be just fine with them.

Seven months later, the Celtics are NBA champs, ending a 22-year drought. I know Bruce got to at least one playoff game, and that he’s a happy guy, a true Boston sports fan. No doubt my friend Rob is a happy camper, too.

I’m not a basketball fan, but when we saw the Celtics were up 30 points (!!) in the third quarter, we ended up watching most of the rest of the game. Even if it’s not your sport, you don’t often get a chance to see a team from your city win a championship.

Well, unless it’s the 21st century and you’re from Boston. With 6 titles among the 4 major sports in this century, it’s a good time to be a Boston sports fan.

Now it’s time for the Bruins to represent, right?