View of Waikiki

While in Honolulu, we stayed at the New Otani Kaimana Beach Hotel. Located close to Diamond Head on the south end of Waikiki, the New Otani is situated across from Kapiolani Park. It is a good value for many reasons. Its biggest selling point for me, was the view.

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Sunrise from our balcony.

This position is ideal because the hotel is quiet, set apart from the touristy, shopping mall busyness of Waikiki. Plus, you look back at the entire beach and skyline and take it all in. If you were staying in Waikiki proper, you wouldn’t have so broad a perspective. Here are some of the pictures I shot during our two nights at the hotel.

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Kapiolani Park with Diamond Head in the background.

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Graceful palm trees backlit by the setting sun.

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Other visitors stop to capture a picture of the sunset.

A trio of pictures from our balcony at different times of the day:

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Just after sunset, I spotted the moon above the palm trees.

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One final nighttime shot, in black-and-white.

 

Food in Long Beach: Starling Diner

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Near the end of our trip to Los Angeles last month, while driving down the Pacific Coast Highway to visit Janet for tea, we stopped for brunch at the Starling Diner.  Located on East Third Street in Long Beach, the look and feel of the Starling Diner is that of an old-time neighborhood institution.  The food is comforting, the service friendly, and the fellow diners are, well, neighborly.

Starling Diner is all this despite having been around for less than five years.  It is no surprise then to learn that owner Joan Samson made a very conscious effort to create a space that had that neighborhood institution feel.  From their website:

In times past, neighborhoods were Communities where everyone casually knew each other and the gathering places were icons such as the front porch, the corner store and the neighborhood diner. It has always been our personal mission to create gathering spots that provide a sense of place along side the highest quality food and drinks. We live in and love Long Beach. We just made a place where we would like to meet our friends and connect.

My cousins had first brought me here in 2009 and I was eager to share the cute restaurant and tasty dining experience with Tawn.  He wasn’t disappointed.

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This pale green cruiser parked outside seems to exemplify the Starling Diner.  Located amidst houses on a quiet street, this is the type of place you would hop on your bicycle and ride three blocks to meet some friends for breakfast at.

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The tables are crowded with little tin tubs of all the condiments you might need.  Interestingly, they serve water in these biodegradable corn-based plastic cups in order to save the environment.  As I pointed out to the server (in a friendly, non-complaining sort of way), they would do more to save the environment to serve their cream, jellies, sugars, etc. in bulk containers rather than individual sachets and packages. 

The fact that our server took that suggestion with a thoughtful smile and remained friendly and welcoming is a good example of the type of consistent service I’ve enjoyed during both my visits.

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The highlight of the menu is the San Francisco stuffed French toast.  Unlike most French toast, this is broiled not fried, and is made from baguette, not square loaf bread.

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It does not disappoint!  The result is something that is light and crispy rather than heavy and soggy like most French toast.  This is a recipe I would like to learn to recreate at home.

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Tawn had the crab cakes sandwich, which had these wonderful, large lump crab meat and tons of fresh greens.  This was really tasty, too.

All in all, the only disappointment at the Starling Diner was that there were just the two of us and, as such, we were only able to try two items on the menu.  Mark this on the list of places to come back to on a future visit!

 

Vacation in a Beach House

For our vacation with my sister, brother-in-law, and nieces, we opted to rent a three-bedroom house in Hermosa Beach, just two blocks from the Pacific Ocean.  Not only did this work out quite reasonably financially – roughly $400 a night – but it gave us a lot more room than a hotel would have, plus the ability to easily cook our own food and do our own laundry.

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Tawn leads a junior yoga class, which was surprisingly effective at helping the girls calm down, focus, and not get into squabbles with each other.  Maybe we should sign them up for daily classes?

Actually, we didn’t rent one house, but two.  The initial house was booked for our final three nights but the property manager had another similar house just three blocks away, so we moved into that one.  I have to really credit this lady, she was super friendly and very helpful.  If you are ever looking to rent a vacation home in Los Angeles, I’d be happy to recommend either of her two properties.  (This is the first house, a 3br/3 ba and this is the second house, a 3 br/1ba.)

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We did a little less cooking at home than I had anticipated, but we did eat at least breakfast at home each day, allowing for some cost savings.  As soon as we moved in I made a big (2 pound) batch of pizza dough and kept it in the refrigerator for use in a couple of meals.  Who doesn’t like pizza?  Here’s the girls shape their own pizzas.

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And there’s the finished but not-yet-cooked product, ready to go into the oven.  Their dough ended up kind of triangle shaped, huh?

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And of course there was room for everybody to pitch in with cleaning up and loading the dishwasher.

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Once you do that, we can bundle up (it was chilly by the beach in the evenings) and head to Pinkberry for some dessert.

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The second house we were in had TVs in each room, something I wouldn’t approve of at home but certainly fine for a vacation home.  That provided everyone with the opportunity to lounge in bed in the morning and watch cartoons.  As you can tell from this picture, we had already gone to Disneyland and everybody (including Tawn) had their stuffed animal.

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A view of Tawn walking along the Strand, the 22-mile class 1 paved pedestrian/skater/bicycle path that stretches along pretty much all of Los Angeles County’s western coast from Pacific Palisades to Torrance.  This grey overcast was a fixture of our vacation, at least when we were near the beach.

 

Food in Hermosa Beach: Buona Vita Trattoria

As I mentioned in my previous entry, I’m fortunate that I have a very good working relationship with my boss and colleagues and enjoy my job and the company at which I work.  Because of the twists of circumstance surrounding my move to Thailand more than five years ago, my current manager was my subordinate’s subordinate before I moved.  For my trip to Los Angeles, she and another of my colleagues traveled out to meet me for two and a half days of meetings.  One evening we dined at an Italian restaurant in Hermosa Beach called Buona Vita.

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Buona Vita is on Pier Avenue, the main thoroughfare in Hermosa Beach.  I first went here back in 1995-6, when I lived in LA for my second time.  A colleague, who was of Italian heritage, loved going here because the food reminded her of her grandmother’s cooking.

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There are actually two dining rooms, located about four doors apart.  One is the trattoria, pictured above, and the other is the pizzeria.  My recollection, though, is that you can order the same menu items at both restaurants.

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We started by sharing the Insalate di Pollo e Formaggio di Capra, mixed greens served with chicken, tomatoes, sundried tomatoes, basil, and goat cheese.  I remember this salad from my visits more than a decade ago and it is every bit as good today.  In fact, with a little bread, two people could share this salad and have a perfectly healthy meal.

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Our main courses looked a little more “American Italian”.  I had Polenta Bolognese – grilled polenta (a cornmeal cake) with meat sauce and melted mozzarella.

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My manager enjoyed Lasagna Di Carne – a meat lasagna with Bolognese sauce and ricotta and mozzarella cheeses.  Both these dishes were very good but even before digging in we cut the portions, placing about two-thirds in a two-go box and eating only a third.  Portion sizes were too large.

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My colleague had Spaghettini Alla Checca – thin spaghetti noodles, fresh tomatoes, sundried tomatoes, dressed in basil and olive oil.  Portion size was more reasonable and it was overall lighter in composition. 

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For dessert we tried two things.  The first was the tiramisu.  This seems very different at each restaurant.  I like that this version was less gloppy.  The espresso and liquer mixture was much lighter and the dessert didn’t taste boozy.

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I had the cheesecake which was fine but uninspiring.  The whipped topping doesn’t taste like cream.  I might be wrong, but it tasted more like whipped “topping” rather than whipped cream.

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And here is my colleague and my manager.  All in all, the meal was very enjoyable and food and service were good.  The pasta dishes are a bit heavy and portion size is large, but the salad was certainly a hit.

 

One Night in Waikiki: Mac 24/7 and Boots & Kimo’s

Since we missed our flight out of Lihue, we also missed the opportunity to have dinner with Michael.  But he sent a few suggestions of places we could catch a decent bite later in the evening.  The suggestion we took was Mac 24/7, a restaurant featuring modern American cooking, located in the Hilton Waikiki Beach Hotel, a few short blocks away from our less ritzy hotel.

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After five days of eating mostly local fare, it was nice to order a cosmo and tuck into somewhat more conventional American food.

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The interior was pretty much a modern take on the classic American diner, ESPN playing on the flat screen TVs and just a few customers scattered throughout the place.  Service was friendly and the kitchen had our food to us in about fifteen minutes.

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Well, despite the more conventional menu, Tawn didn’t order too far off what we had enjoyed the past few days.  More seared ahi tuna served with kim chi fried rice.

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I decided to go traditional and get a pork chop and mashed potatoes, which were very tasty.

We returned to the Aqua Waikiki Wave, which describes itself as a boutique hotel but which is nothing more than a standard tourist grade hotel.  In fact, Waikiki seems to be positively bursting with these three-star (or less) hotels.  The place was clean and looked like it had seen a remodel within the past few years, but it was still a pretty standard accommodation.

One thing I’ll give them credit for, though: the hotel is located right on the main boulevard where there is a lot of action well into the night, including a nightclub just outside the hotel’s entrance.  In the room was a pack of foam earplugs with a tactfully phrased note explaining that the hotel is located in “an energetic and vibrant neighborhood” and suggesting that “if you are a light sleeper, you may wish to make use of these complimentary earplugs” and helpfully explaining that more are available by calling room service.  These were the best earplugs I’ve ever used and they really did muffle the noise from outside.

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Above, me horsing around on Waikiki Beach at sunrise.  We were up early and walked the block from the hotel to the beach, which had a surprising number of people who were also out to see the sunrise, catch the surf, or secure a primo lounge chair in front of their hotel.

Here’s a short video of the beach during sunrise.

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We then stopped for coffee at the branch of Honolulu Coffee located on the ground floor of the Westin Hotel.  It was a beautiful morning and we enjoyed a pot of French Press coffee before stopping to buy some boxes of chocolate covered macadamia nuts to bring back to Thailand.  Ignore, for a moment, the fact that macadamias are grown in Thailand.  It’s what people expect you to bring back from Hawaii, right?

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While we had missed the opportunity to dine with Michael the night before, we had thankfully also been pencilled in for breakfast.  Braving the commute into town from the west end of the island, Michael then drove us through the tunnel to the east side of the island so we could visit a popular breakfast place called Boots & Kimo’s in Kailua.

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Boots & Kimo’s is a kind of random place located in a small strip mall and decorated like a sporting goods store.  For whatever reason, it has gained notoriety with Japanese tourists and it seemed like a large portion of the diners were Japanese families.  As Michael explained it, it has kind of reached the point where locals don’t come as often because it is too crowded with tourists.  I felt a little guilty about contributing to the problem.

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We had to wait about a half-hour to be seated, but once inside the service was quick and our food showed up in no time.  Tawn enjoyed the eggs benedict, which were done just like the textbook shows.  You can tell they poach the eggs in molds, though, and not free-form.

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Here we are with our food.  That blue Hawaiian shirt got a lot of mileage this trip, didn’t it?

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Michael and I ordered the same thing: beef short ribs which they hang above the grill in the kitchen so it picks up the smoky flavor as other orders are being prepared.  Then, when your order is placed the necessary ribs are cut off and finished on the flame.  These were really tasty with a nice beefy flavor.

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The thing Boots & Kimo’s is known for, though, are their macadamia nut cream pancakes.  Per Michael’s suggestion, we ordered a stack to share.  Good call because while they are really yummy, eating an entire order by yourself would be overwhelming.  We discussed how they manage to get so much macadamia nut flavor into the cream sauce.  The thing with macadamias is, they don’t give off a lot of flavor once cooked, so the process of extracting the flavor into the sauce must be done with some sort of “low and slow” steeping of the nuts in the cream.  Anyhow, they were a really tasty end to our trip!

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Finally, before heading out the door, we got a picture of the three of us.  Why it didn’t occur to me to have Michael take off his sunglasses, I don’t know.  Perhaps it is best he remains somewhat anonymous so as to lend to the air of mystery that surrounds this long-absent Xangan.  We’ll see if my subtle needling will be enough to get him to write again.

A gracious host, Michael drove us to the airport, dropping us off just the right amount of time before our flight back to Guam and Hong Kong.  Just enough ahead of time so we wouldn’t miss this flight!

 

North Shore of Kauai

On our second to last day on Kauai, we drove from Poipu, where we were staying on the south shore, to the north shore of the island.  While the entire island is very tropical and green, there is a notable difference between the south and north sides.  The north side is the windward side and you can tell that the level of precipitation is much higher.  There is one main highway that runs around the island and it took about an hour and a half to go from Poipu to Princeville.

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The view from my aunt and uncle’s rental condo in Poipu, looking inland towards the mountains.

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Our first major stop was Kilauea, a small plantation town that is home to this lighthouse situated on a dramatic bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean.  One item on our itinerary that we were not able to fit in was a stop to the Kauai Kunana Dairy, a small family-run goat farm and micro-dairy in Kilauea that makes fine goat cheeses.  They offer tours but only on Thursday.  A future visit will have to include a stop there.

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My parents in front of the lighthouse.  I remember visiting here in the 80s as a family.

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We continued our drive through Princeville, then stopped at a scenic overlook before descending into Hanalei Valley.  This is the view of the taro fields in Hanalei Valley.  Such pretty shades of green.

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As we descended into the valley, we were able to get closer to the fields themselves.  Hanalei is a small beach town of surfer dudes and the hippie vibe has not faded.  The reasons for the reference to the town of Hanalei in the song “Puff the Magic Dragon” are easy to understand. 

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While in Hanalei we stopped at a small shopping center that featured shops selling local crafts and souvenirs.  This one had this pretty cat napping amongst the towels.  He looked too comfortable to disturb.

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We worked our way along the highway, making a few stops here and there, until we came to a point that overlooks Wainiha Beach Park (pictured above) and Wainiha Bay (below).  You have to park at a cut-out on the road, being careful to give plenty of room to passing cars.  Then there is an easy climb just a few feet down a hillside to the lava rocks, which give a great view and put you just above the reach of the waves.

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Looking back at the beach in Wainiha Bay.  Tranquil, isn’t it?

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Tawn takes a picture as waves crash with Wainiha Beach Park in the background.

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We continued all the way to the end of the road at Haena State Park.  Since we weren’t planning on doing any hiking on the Kalalau Trail along the Na’Pali Coast (and couldn’t find any parking in any case), we backtracked to Makua (Tunnels) Beach, a wide stretch of sand where we managed to run into my newlywedded cousin and her family.

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At Makua Beach, I saw this man lying in the sun, Christ-like in pose, beard, and dress, looking like a sun-chasing hippie that might be fried in more ways than one.  Birds pecked around him and I can only assume that the lifeguards were aware of him and knew him to be alive.

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Tawn practices writing his name in the sand.

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And then sees his identity washed away by the waves.

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The noth shore is very beautiful and while none of the four of us (me, Tawn, and my parents) are sun-worshipers, it was hard not to appreciate the beauty of the beaches.

Here’s a video I made that combines clips I shot from the north shore as well as other scenic sights on the island.  Not only is the footage beautiful, but the music, a contemporary Hawaiian song titled “Manauleo” by Keali’i Reichel, Uluwehi Guerrero, and Kekuhi Kanahele is well worth a listen.

 

Trip to the Andaman Opera Suite Phuket

Three nights away from Krungthep was just what we (and our guests!) needed.  We stayed at the Andaman Opera Suite located on Mai Khao Beach on the far north end of Phuket island.  A year ago October we stayed at this three-unit condo which we knew as the Black Pearl.  It turns out that each of the units, which are owned by a trio of couples, has a different name.  The Black Pearl is one of the downstairs units and the Andaman Opera Suite is the the upstairs unit.

Since the Black Pearl was unavailable, its owners suggested we call the agent that handles the Andaman Opera Suite.  It turned out to be a great move and was plenty of room for five adults, although the master bedroom suite (in which the three guests stayed) has only a sheer curtain between the bedroom and the shower portion of the bathroom, so this required a little coordination.

Here are photos from the website.  I figured they are so much nicer than anything I could shoot, so why duplicate efforts?

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The kitchen turned out to be rather well-stocked, enough to prepare a couple of meals at home.

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Mixed grill – dry brined pork chops and a variety of German sausages.

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Brownies!  I cheated and used a mix.  Seemed silly to buy cocoa powder just for one batch.

For our third evening, we stopped at the local market and picked up some fresh seafood, herbs, and vegetables to make a nice dinner.

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Before and after: a snapper-like fish stuffed with lemongrass, dill, and galangal root, with kaffir lime leaves and a butter-soy-lime sauce.  Wrapped in foil and baked 25 minutes.

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Chicken biryani from one of the vendors at the market.  Tasty!

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Tawn’s own contribution: tom yum goong soup, a spicy chili-tamarand shrimp soup with coconut milk and herbs.  Tawn held back on the chili to spare the guests.

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Before we chow down for dinner on our final night: me, Tawn, Jack, Craig, and Matt.