Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Following Footsteps into Oahu's History

Want to dig deeper into Hawaiian culture and history during your island vacation? There's no better place to start on than Oahu, home to ancient temples and battlegrounds, WWII historical sites, and the wild scenery of the Windward Coast and North Shore.

Over at LonelyPlanet.com, you can check out my list of five of the most worthwhile day hikes across Oahu, from the easy ascent of Diamond Head near Waikiki to the Maunawaili Trail that snakes below the jagged pali (cliffs). Visit WWII pillboxes or a Hawaiian temple of traditional medicine and healing, all within a surprisingly short drive of Honolulu and Waikiki.

Here's a bonus for blog readers like you! What I didn't have room to include in my Lonely Planet article are da best locals' places to chow down after your hike:

1. Diamond Head - Back in Waikiki, drop by Waiola Shave Ice for icy treats or 1950s-era Leonard's Bakery for malasadas (Portuguese-style doughnuts).

2. Maunawili Trail Network - Drive from any trailhead to Sweet Home Waimanalo market-fresh cafe, pouring veggie smoothies and mint lemonade.

3. Lanikai Pillboxes - Line up at Lanikai Juice for tropical fruit smoothies, often made with produce from organic farms, and heaping fruit bowls.

4. Kaena Point State Park - Backtrack to Haleiwa for sweet Matsumoto Shave Ice from a roadside shack.

5. Keaiwa Heiau State Recreation Area - Gorge on an island plate lunch or poke rice bowl with spicy eggplant fries on the side at chef Elmer's Poke Stop.

Got another favorite hike on Oahu? Let us know where it is by leaving a comment below!

Related links:
Big Island Trekking: From Coast to Volcanic Peaks
Hawaii: Go Green, Live Local & Save Money
Hidden Hiking Trails in West Maui

Photo credit: Sara Benson & Michael Connolly Jr.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Hiking Yosemite's Half Dome [Photo Essay]

Often reading about a hiking trail doesn't give you enough information. Honestly, how difficult is it to hike up Half Dome inside Yosemite National Park? Take a look at our trek and decide for yourself.

View of Half Dome from Clouds Rest peak in Yosemite National Park

Heading up to Clouds Rest from the Sunrise Lakes Trailhead off Tioga Road, you get panoramic views of this glacially polished granite dome. Its rear profile resembles a hawk perched above Yosemite Valley.

Lightning strikes, falling from the cables and other risks

Warning signs at the base of Half Dome are ignored by hikers too intent on making it to the summit despite inclement weather. Fatalities from lightning strikes or slipping off the cables have happened.

Half Dome cables, which are put up seasonally each summer

To safely ascend the cables bolted into the rock, leather gloves and climbing shoes or hiking boots with good traction help. So does upper body strength, as you'll be pulling yourself up to the top of the cables, not pushing off the rock with your legs.

Walking on the top of Half Dome on a summer weekday before 10 a.m.

Is it worth the effort of getting up early enough to beat the crowds to the top? Yes. Fewer people on the cables before 9 a.m. makes it quicker, easier and safer for you to ascend and descend the cables. You'll need to get a hiking permit in advance.

View of Yosemite Valley from the summit of Half Dome

At the summit, stop to catch your breath, let your cramped arm muscles loosen, and gaze down at evergreen trees and meadows beside the Merced River, which meanders through Yosemite Valley

Safely back down the cables, thanks to climbing rope and clips

We finished our 20-mile overnight hike in Yosemite Valley, descending from Half Dome and over the wooden bridge above Nevada Fall. Take the John Muir Trail if you're already knock-kneed, or drop down the steeper Mist Trail beside Vernal Fall.

Have you climbed Yosemite's Half Dome? Was it worth it? Would you do it again? Have any other tips for novices? Leave us a comment below!

Related links:
Catching the Firefall in Yosemite Valley
Winter's Last Lucky Call in Yosemite
Yosemite's Half Dome Through the Back Door

Photos: Yosemite National Park (Michael Connolly Jr. & Sara Benson)

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

5 Big Las Vegas Mistakes You Can Avoid

In 2012, Las Vegas has become one of top two most-searched travel destinations online, behind only Disney. What's everyone trying to find out? Why is this city so hard for first-time visitors and even repeaters to figure out? I'm going to save you a lot of Googling, and even more wasted time and money, and tell you about the five biggest lessons I've learned from a decade of hanging out in Sin City.

1. Let your taxi drive 'long-haul' you through the tunnel. Once you arrive at McCarran Airport and wait in the annoyingly long taxi queue, you're probably not going to pay attention to how your taxi driver gets you to your hotel. But be sure to stay awake and conscious long enough to tell your driver not to take the I-15 connector tunnel if you're staying on or near the Strip. It'll add significantly to your taxi fare and surface streets are faster. (Tip: If you don't want to wait in the airport taxi line, tweet @Hacking Vegas in advance for a stealth pick-up at McCarran.)

2. Not take advantage of valet parking. I'm a diehard self-parker, even on the streets of Los Angeles, where valet parking is treated like a civic duty. But in Las Vegas, valet parking is free at almost every casino hotel and shopping mall. All you need to do is tip when the valet hands you back the car keys (a few bucks is fine, unless they leave your Maserati out front, in which case give 'em a $20). That tip costs less than what you're going to drop in the slot machines, and it saves you having to walk for 15 minutes to and from the self-parking garage. For quick, easy in/out valet parking on the Strip and downtown, I like the Tropicana, Miracle Mile Shops at Planet Hollywood, Bally's, Main Street Station, the Golden Gate and the Golden Nugget's Rush Tower. 

3. Fail to find a deal on your hotel room. There are so many ways to save money on where you stay, whether that's on the Strip, downtown or anywhere else. Most casino hotels announce their deals on Facebook, Google+ and Twitter (the Tropicana is especially savvy with social media offers) and also make promo packages available on their websites. But the best deals are usually reserved for visitors who sign up in advance for email lists (MGM Grand, Bellagio, Wynn & Encore) or register with the casino hotel websites (ex. TI (Treasure Island), Venetian & Palazzo). To get an idea of baseline hotel rates for your travel dates, start your search at Travelworm and compare air/hotel packages on travel booking sites like Expedia. But don't stop your comparison shopping there. Often booking your flights independently and your hotel room directly with the casino nets the biggest savings.

4. Buy full-price tickets for a bad show. When you're on the Strip, you may feel like you have to see a show, as if leaving Vegas without having done so means you'll have missed out. Not true! If you're not a fan of stage shows to begin with, nothing in Vegas is likely to change your mind. If you do want to see a show and you don't have your heart set on Celine Dion or Garth Brooks, head over to the nearest branch of Tix 4 Tonight and get a same-day, steeply discounted ticket for anything that sounds like fun, whether that's Absinthe comedy burlesque, Penn & Teller's magic show or Legends in Concert celebrity impersonators. Even if you don't love the show, at least you won't have spent too much money on it. Bonus tip: If you do want to see Cirque du Soleil, line up before the Tix 4 Tonight booth opens for the day or sign up online for the Cirque Club to buy discount tickets in advance. Also check for promo ticket deals on the Cirque website and the websites of the casinos hotels where the shows are playing.

5. Pay too much or too little for dinner. Are you excited by the idea of a $10 steak or buffet? Know that you get what you pay for in Vegas, which means bad food for cheapskates (Ellis Island off-Strip is a shining exception to this rule). If you're going to pay for a buffet, pick one of the best, like The Buffet at Wynn, Wicked Spoon at Cosmopolitan or Studio B at the M Resort south of the Strip. It's also worth paying more for top-tier steakhouses, like SW Steakhouse at Wynn, Cut at the Palazzo or N9NE at the Palms. Under-the-radar steakhouse deals include Envy near the city's convention center, Vic & Anthony's at the Golden Nugget, Flame at the El Cortez or the 1950s Golden Steer, where the Rat Pack used to hang out, just west of the Strip. And just because you're splurging, doesn't mean you can't also save yourself money and time. Buy discount dining certificates from Restaurants.com and make free reservations for in-demand restaurants with OpenTable

Looking for more expert insider Vegas travel info? Download our Viva Las Vegas, Baby! mobile app or Amazon Kindle ebook. Got your own tips for avoiding tourist traps in Las Vegas? Let us know by leaving a comment below. Thanks!

Related links: 
Viva Las Vegas, Baby! mobile app (iTunes / Android)
Viva Las Vegas, Baby! Amazon Kindle ebook
Stacking Up the Strip's Best Burgers

Photo credits: Michael Connolly, Jr. & Sara Benson