Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Oh Maui!

Sunset over Ka'anapali Beach from our balcony
Since I heard those magic words- We're Going to Hawaii - I knew that Maui had to be on the agenda. After all, that's where the celebrities lived! According to Life and Style, and my beloved OK Magazine, the likes of Steven Tyler, Pierce Brosnan, and Oprah (ok she owns at least a fourth of the island - it's insane), own homes out there, with many celebrities traveling to Maui for vacation. This certainly was not the motivating factor for the visit - and we actually saw more celebrities on Oahu - but rather the conjuring notion that Maui was "real untouched Hawaii." Getting to untouched Hawaii also has some travel experiences of which I was not initially aware. One being a prop plane ride to the Kapalua airport - the closest airport to Ka'anapali - the landing was interesting to say the least, but the flight only took about a half an hour - and I lived!!

This is the lobby at the Westin - how cool is that?
After much research, we decided to stay on the West side of the island on Ka'anapali Beach; as opposed to the South side of the island where the town of Wailea sits. The hotel of choice for us was the Westin Ka'anapali Resort and Spa. At a price of $375 a night before taxes, that was actually one of the cheapest hotels on this side of the island - and this was considered the rainy off season. However, we soon learned, that it was also whale season - and that brought in tour groups by the masses. Our hotel was actually at 97% capacity!! We also found out that Maui is the land of renting timeshares - so looking on RedWeek or other rental sites might be a cheaper route to go for future trips. However, as we saw that most timeshares - such as Honua Kai which looked fabulous - were a little further away, having a car would be a must, so budget accordingly. Since we flew into Kapalua - the resort provided free airport transfers - something to think about when planning your air travel.

Dinner with a view at LeiLani's
Upon check in, the hotel did not have the room we specified - so we were upgraded to an ocean view - no complaints on that. The hotel was situated in a great location. A hop, skip, and a jump to Whalers Village - which has eateries and shops; about a 10 minute walk to Black Rock - a great snorkeling spot; and of course, right on the beach. The room was a typical Westin - kind of small, and could have been anywhere in the country. The room did come with a fridge, which came in handy, but the bathroom left a lot to be desired. The property itself was very nice. Cascading waterfalls, rock formation pools, open air lobby with Koi ponds and flamingos, two restaurants - we ate at Ono , and probably the best feature of the resort was the free shuttle downtown and in between resorts. The shuttle runs every hour, and brings you to downtown Lahaina - which is where most of the luaus, ABC Stores (get your alcohol and snacks here), shopping (make sure you visit Crazy Shirt and Honolua in the Lahaina Cannery), restaurants, and boating excursions are, as well as a Hawaii mainstay Hilo Hatties

The Black Rock where you can swim with a turtle!
There are an abundance of restaurants next door at Whalers Village - while still Hawaiian prices - they are better than you will find at any of the resorts. Try Hula Grill for Aloha Hour - or Leilanis - ask to eat on the patio and there is a cheaper menu. The incredible snorkeling spot a few minutes walk away in front of the Sheraton is called Black Rock. The current is strong - so flippers are a must - but you will be in awe as you swim with a giant green turtle and countless fish. You are free to ask the turtle how old he is - ok Finding Nemo reference - but don't touch or ride the turtles - honestly people try. Also - you may think that you are a bronze God or Goddess, but believe me, the sun is strong here. We stuck with SPF 50 the entire time and still got red!

While there was plenty to do in the Ka'anapali and Lahaina area, we chose to rent a car for a day on our first full day on the island to drive upcountry Maui. There is an Enterprise rental car store at the Sheraton Maui, where an SUV is the suggested vehicle for this drive. However, make sure you return your car on time. They told us it was pro-rated if we went over - however, it's pro-rated at about $30 an hour - not cool.

Ka'anapali Beach
There is only one road to upcountry, so expect some traffic, but expect some fantastic views. You may also want to do as we did and stop at the supermarket in Lahaina to get drinks and ice for the ride. Along the way you will find stands that sell pineapple and coconuts - be prepared to pay $10 a piece - but it's a good one-time experience. Your first stop you'll find is Pali lookout - where you can see a lot of whale movement if in season. Make sure you pack your binoculars if you have them. Whales can be seen all over the island as they travel from Alaska to Maui to give birth and nurse their calves. Sometimes it's just a tail, but other times, whales are jumping straight out of the water and can be seen from the beach. There are many whale watching tours as well.

You will also find the last working sugar mill in the islands. Unfortunately, there are plans to close the mill down in the coming years. The ride is an easy ride, with a lot of lush greenery as you head up along the base of Haleakala - the islands' second largest volcano - second to Kilauea which is still active on the Big Island. Be prepared - the ride does raise in elevation. I believe the highest we got was up to 7,000 feet. The roads are steep and curvy, but nothing a slow driver can't handle. DO make sure that you print off directions as well as use your gps on your phone - a lot of the time our GPS was about to send us the wrong way - so having the backup directions was key.

Goat cheese - delicious!
Our first stop was Surfing Goat Dairy. I, for one, am a bit obsessed with Goat Cheese - or Chevre. The fact that this farm not only had cute baby goats and very scenic view, but also made over 30 types of cheese, goat cheese truffles and assorted soaps - well that just made me giddy. I was smiling the entire time. If you go - make sure you get a chevre sampler - for $16 - it comes with 6 types of cheese and crackers - YUMMMMM!!! From there - we made a quick stop at the Church of the Holy Ghost. It is on the national registry of places in Hawaii. The building is ornate and seeing how the Hawaiians tend to the cemeteries - was particularly thought invoking. A few miles away, and a few thousand feet up in elevation - yes, thousand, is Ali'i Kula Lavender Farm. It is on the slopes of Haleakala - which means it can get quite cool - so pack a sweater, and bring food if you are there around lunch time - there isn't much to snack on there. The farm does offer tours at certain times, but we did not make it in time to join one. However, you only need your feet and a camera to see this place. It's quite tranquil to literally stop and smell their many varieties of lavender - and tropical flowers. They also have a shop - where you guessed it - you can buy everything with lavender in it - I must admit that we did a bit of damage here due to my affinity for the scent. 

What a view from the lavender farm!
Driving to our next location, we unexpectedly ended up in the small town of Kula. There you will find Grandma's Coffee - make sure you get some goodies there. The Sour Cream Banana Bread was amazing as was the chocolate covered macadamia bar - yumm. We also unexpectedly passed Sun Yat-Sen Park - worth a stroll through as you eat your banana bread and stretch your legs. The last, and most important part of our drive - was to reach Tedeschi Winery. I had heard rumblings about this winery from many sources. Pineapple wine? I am so in. After some research, we found that there isn't an actual address to get to the winery. You have to look for Ulupalakua Ranch and then it's across the street. Stop at the ranch first - they have the best Maui beef sandwiches - free range beef and oh so delicious with Maui onion on top. The grill is only open until 2:30 - so make sure you get there on time. 

Now the winery wasn't really like any other winery I have been to and I have been to a lot. For starters you are only allowed to try three wine samples - but it's free. You also can not have wine by the glass or open a bottle on the property - Hawaii is very tight on drinking in public places including all beaches. Do make sure that you buy a bottle of Hula O'Maui Sparkling Pineapple Wine- it is amazing. As is Maui Splash. I would have bought more, but we couldn't fit it in our suitcases, and they don't deliver to Connecticut. However, I found a store in California: http://calistogawinestop.net/,  that will deliver them - I have yet to try.

The backside of Haleakala on an unusually clear day.
We had plans to end our trip to upcountry by taking in the sunset from 10,000 feet at the Haleakala summit. Mother nature had other plans - high wind advisories and low lying clouds and fog weren't going to let it happen.She also didn't want to secure a good sunrise the next day - with high wind advisories for winds over 50 mph - we decided to forgo the six hour in total trip - instead exploring the town of Kapalua. If the weather is going to be clear - go up to the mountain for sunrise! You'll have to leave your hotel around 3 a.m. and dress very very warm - but the result is worth it! Even if you can't get to the summit - drive around the base of the volcano. You'll see varying climates and agriculture - with soil that closely resembles that of Mars.

Brunch with a view at the Plantation House.
Kapalua is home to some seriously beautiful golf courses. Thanks to some Trip Advisor suggestions on our smartphones, we ended up at a beautiful brunch spot, the Plantation House, at the Plantation Golf Course. We found out later, that this is the course where the PGA kicks off each year. The breakfast was as wonderful as the view. Make sure you try the guava mimosa. In the Kapalua area, there are also a few bays that are great for snorkeling - only in the off winter seasons - Honolua and Kapalua Bay - they also apparently are home to some reef sharks. Along this coastline, there is also Peahi Beach - which we could not find - where the infamous JAWS Waves happen during the winter.The days that we were there, there were no JAWS sightings, which would appear on every news program, dedicated web site and radio program in the area. Check that out here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=INbs0gj6Y3A. Although we didn't stop - the Maui Brewing Company is also in Kapalua. You can sample a lot of their great beer at local establishments - some even have their own brew for the restaurant. 

Their hip shaking was impressive!
Unlike our stay on Oahu, a few organized tours and activities were planned for Maui. I was even more excited about these activity choices when a cast member at Aulani in Oahu, who had lived in Lahaina, gave us a list of 10 things to do in Maui and we have nine of them on our list. He was, as it turned out, an ex-dancer at the Old Lahaina Luau - one of our first activities. It felt ultra cool to walk into the luau and tell the staff - that were all in traditional dress - that their buddy said hi from the other island - I felt it gave us some "street cred" - ok or maybe just a quicker delivery of our drinks. As you enter the luau, you are greeted with the traditional lei and a strong Mai Tai - I liked it already. Since the show does not start until dark, you have plenty of time to watch the sunset on the beach, have professional photos taken, shop for native crafts, watch the pig unearthing, hit the bar for unlimited drinks or as I did - find a woman who was on your Disneyworld bus to your Disney hotel back in October - believe it people - I found her - it was insane. The show was incredible - very authentic Hawaiian - so if you want fire dancers, which is Samoan - you will have to watch that from your balcony at the Westin for their luau show. The food was very good - however, I am not much of a meat and poi person - but the Ahi Poke was incredible!! The drinks kept flowing and it was a great time, however, just know that you will be seated with random - probably much much older than you - individuals - it does make for some good laughs after the fact.
The view from the water is worth price of admission.

The next night, we took a break from the dancing and pork eating, and jumped on a sunset cruise with Trilogy Sailing. The catamaran left from in front of the Ka'anapali Beach Hotel - a three minute walk from our hotel - and cruised for about two hours. FYI: make sure you wear shorts or a dress, and shoes that can be easily removed - this boat has a beach boarding so you will be taking off your shoes for the whole ride and walking in thigh-high water. The sail included heavy appetizers (if you like tuna and vegetarian options - they have you covered) and two drinks per person - which wasn't too filling, but the view of the sunset from the water was worth price of admission - $62 a person. The tranquil island music and bob of the waves is enough to relax anyone.  Since it was whale season - we also were able to get close to the whales and hear their calls by use of a hydrophone. Trilogy Sails also has day sails and snorkeling trips - and are rated highly on TripAdvisor - so check them out.

Untouched Hawaii - one of the appeals of the Road to Hana.
Our final day in Maui - we took on the much anticipated Road to Hana. My boyfriend and I went back and forth on this ride for a few months. Did we want to brave the road with 637 turns - that is also nicknamed Divorce Highway - by ourselves, or did we want to take a tour and sit back and relax? In the end, we decided to opt for the tour. Valley Isle Excursions was the tour that fit all our needs. Now, the tour is not cheap - at $132 a person; however, it does include breakfast and lunch, beverages, and all entrance fees to parks etc. The fact that we did not have to navigate the turns and back road of Hana by ourselves made it worth it - oh yeah - it's also the only tour that was 12 hours long and stopped at the winery, again. 
The road on the backside of the highway - why I didn't want to drive.

The tour only holds 12 passengers, so you get individual attention from the tour guide,(who also was kind enough to point out where celebrities lived and land that Oprah had purchased - this got me very excited!) who will stop at as many roadside stops as he can in addition to the 13 scheduled stops at places such as: Hana's Black Beach at Waianapanapa State Park, the seven sacred pools of Oheo Gulch at Haleakala State Park, Charles Lindbergh's grave, Tedeschi Winery, and a botanical flower garden. Unfortunately, due to rain, the seven sacred pools was closed to swimming that day, as were most beaches - however, the pay off was that all the waterfalls were flowing like a fury - which was very enjoyable. The untouched beauty of this side of the island was unparalleled - however, it is a very long day and toward the end we were a little slap happy - but I'm glad we experienced it once.
Where on earth can you see a sunset like this?

I must say, that upon leaving Maui, I was a bit sad. I felt that this island was a bit more in touch with their Hawaiian culture and tried to stay true to that. It is the second biggest island to the Big Island, and some parts are  not even developed yet; for instance, there is one side of the island with no electricity or running water, so people live off generators and rain basins. Seeing whales every day, and turtles, as corny as it sounds, makes you feel in touch with the living sea. The scent of tropical flowers lingers everywhere you go - especially at night - and the sunsets are out of this world. That being said, I would love to see some of the commercialization of the area calm down - as there is nothing like ruining paradise with a KFC on the corner near a pineapple stand. Still, Maui remains in my heart as a true Hawaiian experience that I can't wait to relive.

Recap - Top Ten Things to Do in Maui
Drive Upcountry
Snorkel Black Rock
Visit Haleakala - but check the weather first
Visit Pali Lookout
Old Lahaina Luau
Road to Hana
Tedeschi Winery
Lavender Farm
Sunset Cruise

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Renting Disney Vacation Club Points - The Way to Get Back to Aulani

After being home for about a week now, I already dream of going back to Hawaii as soon as possible. Seeing as though Aulani came with a steep price tag, I was convinced that this would be a once in a lifetime stay.

I decided to do a bit of research before I gave up entirely. I checked my old and faithful timeshare rental site - RedWeek. Now since Aulani's second phase is not complete yet - which holds a vast majority of DVC properties - and the fact that Aulani did have a few hiccups with being able to sell timeshares at Aulani, the selection on RedWeek was one to none. The only one that I happened to find was about $550 a night - not exactly the money saving option that I was hoping for.

Renting DVC Points can get me back to Stitch in no time!
Then I remembered something from a book that I had read - "The Dark Side of Disney," by Leonard Kinsey (the cover art is deceiving - it's not vile, I promise). There is an unknown world of renting Disney Vacation Club (DVC) points from timeshare owners whose points are about to expire. Great, I thought, but it seemed a bit risky.

I had in fact bombarded a nice couple from Michigan about this very concept in the soaking relaxation tub at the Laniwai spa at Aulani - I know I think my boyfriend was cringing when I started to talk about the "backstage of Disney traveling," while our fingers pruned. They  said they rented points for their stay at Aulani through a renter who only deals with them and their daughter's family. They had nothing but positive experiences with this renter, but he wasn't in the business of accepting me as a client. So, there went any lead I had.

They said that they were able to get a one bedroom rental, with full kitchen, for about $195 a night...ok now my ears perked up.  That was less than half of the rate that we had found. Were they DVC members themselves, I asked? Nope - just really smart vacationers who used this practice at Disneyworld and now in Hawaii, and told us that frankly, they wouldn't vacation any other way.

So, the search began with the words: DVC, Renting Points. There were a few rogue discussion threads through Disboards (a Disney vacation blog) and a site called David's Vacation Club Rentals. This site looked promising. It was very professionally done and outlined all the information one would need - including a must have according to my book - a renter's agreement. David of the site is the middleman with owners who are willing to rent their points. A middle man will raise the cost per point a bit - apparently about $4 a point - which is how the rooms are based. 

For example: on this site one point is $13; you then use the point calculator on the site with where you want to stay, when, and how long ,and it will give you a point value at different resorts for that time. Rentals for deluxe resorts (think Contemporary, Boardwalk, etc.) at Disneyworld for a week started as low as 44 points for the week!!! And this is a vacation rental with multiple beds, full kitchen and washer and dryer!! So for  $572 before tax, you can stay at a deluxe resort, which usually runs anywhere from $350-600 a night. Not bad huh?

There is a caveat that this does not include maid service. Only trash and towel service if you are staying four nights or more. But if you really need to have your room cleaned, you can pay a per diem.

I looked up Aulani for a week and found that we could go again for literally less than half of our previous stay. Hope had once again been restored.

I have yet to use this site to book any Disney stays - but will be reporting on the process once I am able to do so. The best thing about it is that you can use your Paypal account for deposits and final transactions. Paypal's guarantee will all but 100% ensure you that you won't be paying for services you did not receive and your information will not be circulated among vendors.

If anyone has used this site or others like it to rent points, let me know your feedback. At the very least, it's enough to keep my Aulani dream alive!