Saturday, November 17, 2012

Planning Nothing - An Eiffel Tower Picnic

Every trip brings a wave of options that are difficult to wade through in the relatively short time a vacation allows. The desire to plan days to the hour can be great. I was guilty of this during early trips, trying to cram in everything possible. I had not traveled much and generally like to remain on the go, particularly if there is something I might never see again. However, as a few trips passed and I continued sharing stories, the best ones were often unscripted and outside of the realm of planned activities.

Eiffel Tower
Don't go speeding along, you might miss something
While on vacation, doing nothing can be everything. This is not just the relaxing and revitalizing aspect of vacation, but more than that. It can be those spontaneous moments on vacation that peel back the curtain of a city that is otherwise hidden from the pages of your guidebook. Not only can this lead to a greater appreciation for the location, but you also don’t come back feeling like you need another vacation (though I admittedly always want another vacation). In my opinion, vacation can be adventurous, educational, and relaxing, but it should never be downright exhausting.

This post is going to fulfill two purposes, offering this bit of travel advice and then explaining it through one of my favorite cities of all time, Paris! We saw all of the main attractions in 3 or 4 days, but what I explain below happened later, when a lack of plans let us leisurely become engrossed in this stunning city. 

The Eiffel Tower is arguably the most recognized monument in the world. We saw it through tourist eyes first, snapping pictures from all angles, and reveling in the energy of people swarming the area. During our first unplanned day of the trip, we were drawn straight back. However, this time, we hopped off the metro earlier and got intentionally lost on side streets on the way. Happening upon a wonderful outdoor market, we bought French picnic specialties and lounged on the lawn in the tower's shadow, sipping on wine while eating delectable fresh strawberries. Sitting there chatting, people watching, and relaxing with an Eiffel Tower background is dreamlike. In fact, we came back again our final night, wine in hand of course, and watched the tower light up in a magical display.

An afternoon doesn't get much better than this!
In a city spoiled with incredible churches, my top choice is the famous Notre Dame Cathedral. We saw this early in the trip, took the obligatory pictures, and toured the interior. A phenomenal site in every aspect, we loved its location on the Seine River and decided to come back later in our week. Good thing we did, because this time we decided to wait in line to climb to the top. This gave us some of the best views of the city, even though we had balked at the opportunity the first time due to a wait in line. Walking up winding steps straight out of a Disney movie and observing the church and the city from this bird's eye view was breathtaking (not just from the view but also literally because of how many steps we climbed!).
Some of the best views in the city

Paris - Montmartre
Outside the Basilica
Montmartre is a hill in northern Paris that is probably best known for the Basilica Sacre Coeur. The neighborhood is unique from the rest of the city and bustling with artists and quaint cafes. We took our time wandering to the Basilica, and our first observation was that the area was flooded with tourists. However, upon closer look, the steps leading up to Sacre Coeur were actually filled with locals. With an open game plan for the evening, we decided to take a seat. Almost immediately, an individual selling Heineken for 1 euro stopped by and must have read our minds that we were thirsty! So, instead of spending 5 times the price in a restaurant, we hung out on the steps of one the most distinctively beautiful churches in Paris, savored several cold Heinekens, eavesdropped on unintelligible conversation (our French was not so great), and listened to guitar tunes humming in the air.

Overall, we passed up several areas that the guide book and other research recommended highly. Though we did take two day trips while in France (future post topics!). This was my first large excursion into Europe, and I couldn't fathom rushing through Paris or any city of this size. I would argue that seeing one city in depth will always be greater than seeing multiple cities in the same timeframe (or seeing everything about one too quickly). Less can be more if you have limited time. Relish in fewer plans instead of stretching yourself too thin. Building unplanned flex days into a trip itinerary is travel advice I am incredibly passionate about. Then again, travel is about individual experiences, so do what you enjoy the most. 

Eiffel Tower lights - Paris

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Adventure Maui

Lulling ocean waves, umbrella drinks, and serene sunsets. Those are just a few of the things that immediately come to mind when thinking about Maui. While entirely accurate descriptions, there is another side to the island that makes this paradise an even greater wonderland of enjoyment. Above, below, or on solid ground, adventure in Maui awaits. There are things to do here that are impossible to imitate elsewhere in the world because of the absolutely natural splendor of the island. The incorporation of adrenaline inducing activity into the laid back vibes of the island mix effortlessly. During our time in Maui, we went powered hang gliding, zip lining, and offshore snorkeling. 

When I first read about powered hang gliding I had no idea what it was. Wow, was this some of the best money ever spent! The hang glider needs an engine to bring it to maximum height, but once in the air, the power is cut and the remaining time is a silent glide until landing smoothly back on solid ground. This felt like the truest sense of soaring through the sky like a bird, scanning the beautiful lands and coast of Hana.
Hang Gliding Maui
Steering the glider over the ocean!
Hang gliding Maui is a business run by Armin, who is sensational. We arrived at the airport early for our appointment and about five minutes later, here comes Armin commuting to work from the other side of the island in his small plane. He was so friendly and engaging that any nervousness dissipated immediately. While in flight, Armin explained how to fly the glider and instructed us to steer for a short time. We were able to hear him communicate with other pilots in the area and learned about some of the aerodynamics of the glider. Coasting over the beaches and waterfalls in the area is beyond any more description I could write. This does requires a drive to Hana if staying elsewhere on the island  (which just gave me another blog post idea for the Road to Hana), but it is well worth it.

Flying Hawaiian zipline takes you careening through the west Maui mountains, a landscape that showcases the natural diversity of the island. Traveling over 2.5 miles on 8 unique zip lines ranging from a 250 ft. training line to the 3600 ft. finale, it is hard to determine if the exhilaration comes from the speed of the zip line or the encompassing panoramic views. The guides are phenomenal, providing excellent assistance to feel 100% safe and educating the group about the history of the island. This is a five hour event with some hiking, so I recommend coming hydrated and doing the morning tour when it is cooler. Though they give you a souvenir canteen (which we use all the time) and refill your water supply throughout.
Having a blast!
As you zip through the marvelous Hawaiian landscape, the tour takes a stop to recognize the importance of preserving this exquisite land. Guests plant and water endangered Hawaiian plants that the company is working to keep alive. Part of the cost for booking goes toward ensuring Flying Hawaiian can keep the license required to plant these rare flowers. This is an invigorating and environmentally friendly activity.

The final line - About to reach 50 mph!

Snorkeling options are everywhere on the island. We rented gear for a week and went almost every morning on the beach near our place and at Black Rock on Kaanapali beach. This awarded us a plethora of colorful fish, and even encountered a sea turtle and sting ray. However, there are  ultimate snorkeling adventures waiting offshore. We chose to take the Four Winds boat to the sunken volcano location of Molokini. This excursion takes you to Molokini only, whereas other options may split the snorkel trip up between two sites. Recommendation after doing this is stick with Molokini only. The sea life is phenomenal and you can leisurely enjoy the swim. Food, drinks, and all snorkeling gear is included.

Maui snorkeling
Picture of the crater from
Molokini is a few miles off the coast of Maui. A sunken volcano crater, the waters are incredibly clear with visibility up to 150 feet. The crater is a carefully protected marine preserve and a Hawaii State Bird Sanctuary. Its crescent shape protects the inside from the waves and currents, making it a haven of water that is clear and calm. The extreme variety of fish pretty much round out every part of the color wheel. Molokini is home to at least 250 distinct marine species.

Molokini snorkeling
One of many schools of fish at Molokini
Maui's landscape allows for all of this and more. We turned down options for surfing and paddle boarding, and fantastic hiking brings you to some of the secluded wonders of the island. An aspect of these adventures I can't speak to highly enough is the people coordinating them. Infusing the Hawaiian spirit with each activity takes the overall experience up several notches. When you visit Maui, be sure to relax and refresh, but know that energizing activities are prevalent. Relaxing on the beach is easily a favorite of mine, but I challenge anyone coming here to sit idle and not seek adventure in Maui.