Palm tree climbing at the Polynesian Cultural Center

Back on the Road: O’ahu

A few years ago I had a rethink about my blog and decided to move away from travel blogging, or, at least, to diversify to a broader set of topics. This past year+ I’ve returned to those entries with joy, envy, and nostalgia for those pre-pandemic times. And when we finally took our first *real* post-vaxx trip last week I knew I wanted to write about it so I could capture the joy of going somewhere not here again.

As the world started to shut down in March 2020, Sergio and I started canceling our work and personal trips one by one. I was a few weeks away from another solo getaway to O’ahu, a trip I planned when Sergio was going to be on a recruiting trip for The Company. But for months and months our airline credits sat waiting for us to spend them.

And then this happened.

I’ll never get tired of this photo!

Of all the things I’ve learned this past year, one that I’d like to retain is that people have different priorities for themselves, and those priorities might not align with yours. We know folks who have traveled throughout the pandemic as well as vaccinated folks who aren’t yet ready to resume their normal routines. We certainly have been rather conservative (and fortunate to have that option, thanks to our jobs) so it has been hard to re-enter the world in the last few weeks after we reached our Immunity Day. Patterns persist! It takes effort to find a new normal and change your behavior (given what I do for a living, I know this to be true).

Our mini-moon in 2017

Once we received our first of two vaccines we decided to start planning our first trip (we = me asking Sergio every day until he caved). We had looked at some places in the Southwest (but decided it would be too hot) and the Midwest (but they were too lax with COVID restrictions), so we decided to go back to O’ahu. This felt like completing something the pandemic interrupted, but, more than that, we appreciated the precautions put into place by the state. Hawai’i has a good vaccination rate, still requires masks in public places, and requires a negative COVID test (or a 10-day quarantine) before you visit. And because many activities and restaurants are outdoors, it seemed like a good first trip — not risk-free, but a lower risk than some of our other options.

Hot tips:

  • If you’re planning on a trip to Hawai’i, read the rules and regulations carefully. To avoid quarantine you’ll have to take a COVID test from an approved facility 72 hours prior to your flight (ours cost almost $200/each, so factor that into your cost estimate), and, at present, you have to test negative again before traveling between islands. (yes, really).
  • You’ll also sign up with the state to share your itinerary, etc. This registration allows you to skip lines at the airport (you get a wristband once you show a QR code that confirms you’ve completed the proper paperwork) — but if you test positive, you’ll have to cancel your trip (which is why we bought travel insurance, something we never do). This adds some extra preparation to the trip!
  • Do note that the regulations will continue to ease as Hawai’i hits vaccination milestones, so check out the website for the latest information.

And yes — it was still worth it.

Because of all of this I felt some anxiety coming into this trip, which I tried to reframe as excitement (this mostly worked). I wasn’t sure if I had all of my packing skills (spoiler: I do!), but that was another way that I managed my anxiety — the banality of finding the right shoes and travel-sized toiletries and enough pairs of shorts. We were extra thoughtful in what we took, including plenty of sanitizer, masks and snacks.

The new travel normal.

We got up early on travel day, giving ourselves extra time at the airport in case things took longer than we had thought. I’m happy to say that things went rather smoothly — the airport has adapted well, though social distancing wasn’t always taking place and some fools still don’t understand that a mask goes over the mouth and the nose. Then I realized that these are the same idiots who used to Facetime without headphones and paint their nails on planes — but now at least we can spot them from afar and choose a seat away from them. As you can imagine, my patience for morons these days is less than zero. I can’t. Just don’t.

Seattle was well-organized and we were able to move quickly through security thanks to Clear and TSA-Pre (and because Clear uses eye-scans for identification, we could keep our masks on the whole time). It’s been awhile since I’ve traveled, but goodness the TSA-Pre line has gotten longer, so keep that in mind.

We got to the gate early and found a nice place to sit and wait. We used all of our credits to get first-class tickets, and as it was almost a full flight it helped me relax a bit more. Hats-off to Alaska Airlines for being so COVID-considerate — reminding people via announcement and individually about mask rules and doing what they could to make the experience as nice as possible. One thing to note that was new is that Alaska isn’t offering a regular meal-service in coach (though you still get a full meal in first, and it’s gotten better!); instead, you have to pre-order a meal before the flight or bring your own food. On a short flight this wouldn’t be an issue, but if you have a six-hour flight it’s something to consider in your pre-travel planning. Not all of the restaurants were open at the airport in Seattle (the airport is in year 33 of construction, it seems) so be flexible or pack your own snacks (which we did).

SEA-HNL

Before we knew it we were touching down in Honolulu, swooping down over turquoise waters with the skyline in the background. June is warm, bordering on hot (lows were 70, highs between 80 and 85) and stepping out into the Hawai’ian air brought back all of the happy memories of previous trips! We tossed the luggage in the rental car trunk and off we went!

The Kahala Resort, just outside of Honolulu

We chose to stay at The Kahala Hotel and Resort again, a lovingly-tended property just outside of the city. It’s quiet and relaxed, away from the bustle of Waikiki, and even though you’re close to everything, it has the relaxed vibe that lets the stress ooze out of your pores. We also appreciated how COVID-safe the hotel was, requiring masks at all times outside of your room or lanai (and the adherence to that policy was really good!). This is a hotel that is committed to service and kindness, and it shows! All of the staff greet you when you pass, the servers at breakfast remember your order, and the housekeeping staff adjusts to your preferences (eg; if you take off the comforter, they’ll fold it at the foot of the bed instead of remaking the bed the standard way every time). We knew we wanted time to relax so having a quiet sanctuary mattered for this trip.

Our activities for this trip were centered on three things — culture and history, food, and relaxation! And as always we were using our Blue Book for all the best tips. If you’re traveling to Hawai’i, get the Blue Book for the island(s) you’re visiting.

First up, let’s talk culture and history. All of the Hawai’ian islands have rich cultural histories and we’ve had the chance to explore some of that on O’ahu already, including Pearl Harbor, the Cemetery of the Pacific, and the Byodo-In Temple. So this time we wanted to expand a bit and find some other things to explore.

One important tip during COVID times is to reserve your tickets ahead of time! Most sights were limiting the number of entrants and without a reservation you could be turned away. We reserved all of our experiences a few weeks in advance, and since we had many days to choose from we were able to book everything on our list.

L: Fresh coconut; C: Fijian temple; R: “Best Crepe Ever,” says Sergio Rico

We spent an afternoon at the Polynesian Cultural Center. Honestly, I was a bit skeptical before our visit because I assumed it would be silly and underwhelming. Instead it was more or less Polynesian Disneyland in the best possible way. You wander through different “lands” for the major Polynesian lands, each staffed by college students (from nearby BYU Hawai’i) who are from those countries. Each country has some sort of cultural presentation (we saw everything from fire-making to a traditional wedding to a drum performance) and several other activities you could partake in (from plantain-peeling to “spear” throwing, which we both kicked-ass at) as well as snacks or foods from the countries. The grounds were immaculate and everyone was incredibly friendly. We are not LDS but it’s admirable that the PCC funds a college education for thousands of students who otherwise wouldn’t attend college. They also offer luaus and shows but we stuck to the day experience only.

L: Bishop Museum main hall; C and R: Graffiti exhibit

We also went to the Bishop Museum, which is touted as the best collection of Native Hawai’ian artifacts on the islands. The main museum covers Hawai’ian history, life, and culture, and there is also a rotating exhibit (this time it featured graffiti art).

L: Protected and tour-ready; C: Sergio and one of the peacock gowns; R: King’s bedroom

We also toured the Iolani Palace for the first time, the only royal palace in the United States and home to Hawai’ian royalty before Queen Liliuokalani was overthrown by the American government in the 1890s. We opted for the self-guided audio tour, which was about an hour. The palace was restored in the 1970s and it was gorgeous. As always it is sobering to hear yet another story of how our government oppressed Indigenous people, but that is why it’s important to visit places like this so that we deepen our understanding as people in the majority.

Yes, he changes his shirts… he just likes blue!

O’ahu is nothing if not a foodie paradise (and thanks to everyone who shared your recommendations with us!). I don’t think we had a bad meal our entire time, and we sampled as many different types of foods as possible. We returned to our favorite Himalayan restaurant, ate malasadas at Leonard’s, sat at a counter for sushi (Sergio) and teppanyaki (me), indulged in Turkish dips and homemade pasta, fond good shave ice (with homemade syrups), snacked on purple poi doughnuts, and tried nouveau Hawai’ian cuisine.

L: Sergio with Merriman’s signature mai tai; C: LEONARD’S; R: Purple poi doughnuts

It felt both completely normal and a little unnerving to eat in restaurants again. To the credit of every single restaurant we went to, the tables were spaced and partitioned, servers were masked, and menus were single-use. Many of them used temperature checks and we were asked to share our information for contact-tracing. We chose many outdoor restaurants as well, which felt nice. And, importantly, we had a fancy dinner our last night at Merriman’s, the O’ahu branch of the restaurant where we got married almost four years ago. Sweet memories :)

The last and perhaps most important part of this vacation was to relax. If vacationing and traveling is a polarity, we certainly tend towards the latter — exploring, staying active, and visiting all the sites rather than taking it easy. We purposely booked only one activity on most days, giving us plenty of time to read on the lanai, exercise, or watch the dolphins swim. Sergio booked a foiling lesson (similar to surfing except your are pulled behind a jet ski) and we got a lovely couples massage at the hotel’s spa (highly, highly recommend).

We loved the Aloha Kitty Cafe!

We haven’t been away from Astrix for this long for some time now, and even though it might make us traitors, we went to the Aloha Kitty Cafe for some cat cuddles. If you’ve never been to a cat cafe, you pay money to play with and pet cats and kittens for an hour (and you can usually get drinks and snacks too). These cats are all adoptable through the Humane Society, and given how cute and playful they were I can’t imagine they will be here for long! Even though these pictures show them calm and cuddly, most of the time they were chasing after wand toys, foil crinkle balls, and each other!

L: View from our room; R: My book stack for the trip

We also took plenty of time to read, even stopping by a quirky bookstore called Bookends on the other side of the island for a browse of the ready-to-topple stacks. I take a lot of joy in selecting my books before a trip, taking a pile to our couch and reading the first chapter or two of each to see if it’s plane-worthy. Yes, I know I can read books electronically, but it’s just not the same, especially when sand and sunscreen is involved… I was very pleased with my selections this trip and, save about 100 pages of Long Bright River, I finished all of them! As we’ve literally been together for 16 months straight we took the opportunity to read at breakfast and as the sun set. Sometimes those silent moments together are the best moments together! I spent the rest of my introverted time keeping up with my German (it’s still kicking my butt) and walking, dancing, or morning yoga to keep my daily fitness streak alive. I felt energized and not depleted by doing shorter and simpler workouts on vacation, but staying active helped me sleep and make healthy eating choices… and also choose to eat doughnuts.

Our trip back home was as straightforward as our trip to Hawai’i, though the airport in HNL was a bit more cramped and made social distancing difficult (we were also treated to a slew of folks who still hadn’t learned how to wear masks — insert eye roll). Thankfully I made it through this trip with no panic attacks! I did struggle with sleep for a few nights, but I attribute that to normal timezone disruptions, and I was able to get back to good sleep thereafter. Even better was that my medication is still working as intended and my microscopic colitis stayed in-check. I am filled with gratitude for such good fortune as any of these things might have impacted this vacation.

As I reflect on the trip what made it so astounding was how normal it felt to travel again, like almost nothing had changed other than a few safety precautions. There were moments on this trip that I completely forgot we had just lived through a pandemic. Part of that experience was wonderful, as this has dominated our lives for so long. But it also made me recommit to taking some time in the next few weeks to write down what I’ve learned from this experience and how Sergio and I want to design our next normal.

For now we’re debating our next trip destination and checking vaccination rates, hopeful that the world is slowly moving back to interconnectedness — because, at least for us, our curiosity about other people and places is what gets on on planes time and again. That I hope never changes.

S

We think a fall trip to Scotland is in order… or Iceland? Or Poland? Let’s see what emerges!

NW native blogging about life’s struggles and triumphs. Balancing career, family, hobbies, and health. Fierce advocate for mental health. And chocolate lover.