#CatTravels: Arriving in London

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It really wasn’t that bad getting to London.

We flew on Alaska Airlines to Seattle, then Delta straight to Heathrow. Including the layover time — which, by the way, we strategically used to eat some of the best chili cheese fries I’ve ever had at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport — it only took us maybe 18 hours total.

Not bad for traveling directly around the world.

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While we could have taken the Heathrow Express trains, which take you from the airport to Central London in 23 minutes, we opted for the London Underground, also known as the Tube. This rapid transit system serves 270 stations and has about 250 miles of track, half of which are above ground. Opened in 1863, it’s consider the world’s first underground railway upon which other systems — like in New York and Japan — are modeled.

It took us about an hour via Tube to get to our hotel in the Bloomsbury district, an area of the London Borough of Camden near the Euston Station. It was developed by the Russell family in the 17th and 18th centuries into a fashionable residential area noted for its garden squares. In fact, there are three within walking distance of our hotel.

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I booked a room at the Ambassadors Bloomsbury, a modern boutique hotel just down the street from busy Euston Station and a short walk to the world famous British Museum.

It’s always difficult booking accommodations in a foreign city. You don’t know what to believe. Hotel websites say one thing, then guest reviews say another. I read mixed reviews on this hotel, with some complaining about the room size and unfriendly staff. My only requirements were simple: in a safe neighborhood near a Tube station and with a private bathroom. (Many hotels still have shared bathrooms.) And I have to say, so far, this hotel exceeded my expectations. I actually prepared my husband for what I figured would be uncomfortably small rooms. But if you’ve ever stayed in Tokyo or Hong Kong — which we both have — this is pretty spacious.

But it’s not cheap. I couldn’t find room rates for less than $250 USD a night in Central London. And yes, I was going to pay more for a private toilet in our room.

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And there are tons of restaurants in this area, serving everything from Indian to Chinese cuisine.

My husband has an obsession with fish and chips, so we, along with two friends from London, headed to North Sea Fish Restaurant, about half a mile away.

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It’s not a swanky place, but it had good reviews online. This restaurant started as a small takeaway (British for “takeout) serving fresh fish and chips with hardly any seats. But in 1977, a new owner transformed this into a bona fide restaurant that included a liquor license and a renovation that added 60 seats.

Today, the restaurant is even bigger, and the Beauchamp family still runs it. (His widow still makes desserts, starters and soups for the menu.)

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Of course we had to try the fish and chips!

The fish here is delivered fresh every day. The fish is deep-fried in pure ground nut oil in a crispy batter and served with chips (or fries). And unlike other places we’ve been to, you can actually choose the kind of fish you want, from dover sole to Scotch salmon to the traditional cod.

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My husband couldn’t have been happier eating one of his favorite English meals — and in London!

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Here’s the tuna, one of the daily specials, soaked in a tomato-based sauce with carrots and broccoli.

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I had to order the onion rings, which came in an incredibly light batter. But I was polite and shared. (smile)

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After dinner, we decided to take a walk around London. We headed south to Covent Garden, a lively area in the West End filled with restaurants, bars and shops. It’s in an old fruit and vegetable market in the central square, surrounded by theaters and the Royal Opera House.

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Though we were full from dinner, I couldn’t resist getting a macaroon — OK, I bought four — from Laduree, the famous French bakery that has an outpost here.

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Then we walked through London’s very small Chinatown on our way back to Bloomsbury.

There are more than 100,000 Chinese Brits in London. This area, in the city of Westminster, is packed with restaurants, bakeries, supermarkets and souvenir shops.

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On our way back, we passed the British Museum — it was our landmark to make sure we were heading in the right direction — and stopped for a beer at the unassuming Museum Tavern.

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It definitely felt like a traditional London pub, with a nice selection of beers and spirits including Harvey’s Sussex Best, Timothy Taylor Landlord, Theakston Old Peculiar, Daleside Spring Frenzy, Young’s Gold, Hobgoblin and Fuller’s London Pride.

We found a table but had to order from the bartender working at the gilt-mirrored back bar, a nod to its predecessor, the Dog & Duck, which was in operation from the 1700s.

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Not a bad way to finish a long day of traveling, Tube-riding and eating.

Tomorrow is another day!

Follow Cat on her #FoxHoneymoon to England, Scotland and Ireland on Twitter @thedailydish and Instagram @catherinetoth. Track her travels at #CatTravels.

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#CatTravels: Heading to the U.K.

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It’s always the case, right.

I’m scrambling to finish my work, clean the house, and run errands before we leave for Europe — and everything that can does go wrong.

My computer won’t back up my photos.

My laptop get hits by some kind of weird virus and I can’t book anything online.

And my credit cards — yes, both of them — get compromised.

All on the day before we leave for our two-week adventure in the United Kingdom.

Luckily for me, I don’t stress that easily. (OK, I stress, but you’d probably never know it.) If I forget anything — save for my passport and iPhone — I can buy abroad. And whatever I can’t finish, oh, well.

This trip has been a long time coming.

We actually had this planned honeymoon before we even discussed our wedding. (And let’s be real, there wasn’t much to discuss in that department. Beach, minister, marriage license and we were set.)

My husband traveled around Europe with his family when he was a kid, making a circular, two-month trek from Amsterdam to Paris to Hungary — and everywhere in between.

Everywhere except the U.K.

So when we talked about places to visit, this area — England, Scotland and Ireland — ranked high on the list. (In case you’re wondering, we also considered New Zealand, Alaska and Peru.)

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I’ve been to London (above) twice. And while it’s a big city with all its urban flaws, there’s still an old-world charm to the place, with castles in the middle of modern buildings and cobblestone pathways where you’d expect paved roads.

While there’s lots to do there — British Museum, Westminster Abbey, Harry Potter Park — we decided to take a side trip to Bath in southwest England, a World Heritage site and major tourist area. It’s also closer to Stonehenge — read about the latest findings about what’s underneath it here — and the WWT’s Slimbridge Wetland Centre, where we can feed nēnē (Hawaiian goose). (The organization was responsible for breeding the goose and staving off its extinction.)

And then there’s Scotland (top photo) and Ireland, two places neither of us have been, and likely the highlight of our trip. The Highlands, Edinburgh Castle, the search for Loch Ness, the Irish countryside — we’re going to see it all.

And yes, we’ll be in Scotland for the historic independence vote on Sept. 18.

So whatever happens, it should be interesting.

And whatever happens, I’ll definitely be blogging about it!

Follow Cat on her #FoxHoneymoon to England, Scotland and Ireland on Twitter @thedailydish and Instagram @catherinetoth. Track her travels at #CatTravels.

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#FieldTrip: A walk on the west side

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It’s been a couple of years since I’ve been out to the westernmost point of O‘ahu.

So when some friends and I were discussing different trails to tackle this past weekend, I tossed in Ka‘ena Point as a suggestion.

And to my surprise, one hadn’t been there in a decade and the other two had never been there at all.

So it was unanimous, we were going to Ka‘ena Point.

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We got to the trailhead on the Wai‘anae start of the hike by 7 a.m. And to be honest, that was a little late. This isn’t the kind of trail that you want to be still on when the sun is high in the sky. It’s dry, it’s brutally hot, and you won’t find any relief from the heat.

If you follow the highway to the end of the road, you will hit the start of the trail. There are places to park, trash cans for rubbish and signs everywhere telling you what you can and cannot do. For example, no dogs. I made a special note of that one.

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Ka‘ena Point is one of the last intact dune ecosystems in the main Hawaiian Islands. Located on the westernmost point of O‘ahu, at the end of Farrington Highway, this wild and rugged lava shoreline with sweeping views of the vast Pacific Ocean in every direction is nothing short of magical.

You can feel a kind of purposeful spirit here, walking the uneven 5-mile dirt trail from Makua on O‘ahu’s western coastline to Mokulē‘ia on the North Shore. This is the place of Hawaiian lore, where souls of ancient Hawaiians would jump off the point and into the spirit world and meet the souls of their ancestors.

That wasn’t in our plan.

We just wanted to walk the wild coastline dotted with tide pools and sea arches, talk story, and breathe in the beauty of this sacred place.

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The trail leads to Ka‘ena Point Natural Area Reserve, a remote and scenic protected area harboring some of the last vestiges of coastal sand dune habitat on the island, and home to native plants and seabirds. Whales frequent this shoreline during the winter months, and sometimes you can see spinner dolphins playing in the waters offshore.

Back in 2011, a 6.5-foot-tall predator-proof fence was installed to keep out invasive species that have been devastating the populations of native and endangered plants and animals. Animals like dogs, cats and mongooses have killed ground-nesting seabirds and rats eat their eggs.

Since this stainless steel, marine-grade fence — a dark brown to blend in with the natural surroundings — went up, wedge-tailed shearwater fledglings increased from 300 in 2010 to more than 1,700 last year. Laysan albatross fledglings went up 25 percent this year. Native plants such as ‘ōhiʻa and sandalwood are now covered in fruit.

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We were lucky enough to see a nesting wedge-tailed shearwater (above).

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Once you pass through the predator fence, the landscape changes. The volcanic rock coastline softens into sandy dunes lined with naupaka.

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To walk around this area is like a visual lesson in Native Hawaiian ecology. The coastline is dotted with native plants such as ‘ilima, naio and hinahina kū kahakai, with 11 species that are federally listed as endangered ʻāwiwi, puʻukaʻa, dwarf naupaka and ʻohia. And the point, a nature reserve closed to motorized vehicles, is home to rare and endangered coastal plants and seabirds. The critically endangered Hawaiian monk seal and green sea turtles are regularly spotted resting along the coastline.

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Closer to the shoreline, we found small tide pools, little marine ecosystems bustling with fish like lama (baby goatfish), alaihi (squirrel fish) and sergeant majors.

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We got to the point in about 90 minutes — and that’s with stopping to shoot photos.

It’s not a challenging hike at all. In fact, it’s a well-traversed trail with hardly any incline save for one spot where the original road washed away. But we didn’t go there for a workout. We went to see the stunning scenery and marvel at the native ecosystem that’s alive and thriving.

And that’s exactly what we got.

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#CatTravels: Makalawena not a secret anymore

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It’s hard to find a white-sand beach in Kona on Hawai‘i Island.

But there is one — and it’s been a carefully guarded secret until recently.

Makalawena Beach is a secluded stretch of sandy beach coves located about three miles north of the Kona International Airport on private land owned by Kamehameha Schools.

That last part, though, you won’t find in most guidebooks or on travel sites.

People have access to the beach via the shoreline — which is public — by parking at the nearby Kekaha Kai State Park and walking for about 30 minutes along a well-worn path of sharp a‘a. (You’ll need a 4WD vehicle.)

And there are even boats now that drop off visitors to the beach for a few hours.

So this once pristine coastline — and let’s be real, it’s not as crowded as Waikīkī Beach — is now packed with people just about every day of the year. Beach-goers lug their tents, hibachis (grills), beach chairs, even surfboards for about a mile along the shoreline to get here.

And I can see why it’s worth the effort.

The white sand here is super fine — not dissimilar to the sand found in Kailua on O‘ahu — and there are enough small coves to find a quiet spot to relax. Since it’s not easy to get to — it’s about four miles from the highway — it tends to be less crowded than spots like Hāpuna Beach

There are small pools of brackish water inland for washing off the salt and small coves perfect for snorkeling and bodysurfing. We dove around and saw Hawaiian sea turtles, ‘uhu (parrotfish), yellow tang, kala (unicorn fish), a variety of wrasse, a pod of spinner dolphins and lots of humuhumunukunukuapua‘a (wedge-tail triggerfish).

But man, it was crowded. People were tossing footballs in the shallow water and blasting their reggae music on the beach. It wasn’t quite what I had expected.

“It’s in the (guide)book,” says one of the volunteer caretakers this weekend, who counted more than 150 people on Sunday at this small beach. “So they come. And they going keep coming.”

The beach is “open” every day — it used to be closed on Wednesdays — from sun up to sun down. Once the sun starts setting, though, the caretaker will come around and tell folks to leave. The only way you can stay and camp is if you have a permit from Kamehameha Schools. And those aren’t easy to get, either.

We were lucky enough to know someone who works for KS. He invited us to stay over the weekend at Makalawena with him and his extended family. And it was perfect timing, too, since I’m still recovering from a concussion and can’t do much but lounge around. And if you know me, you know how hard that is!

Here’s what our weekend looked like — and let me tell you, when the sun goes down is when this place really turns on its magic:

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In the early morning, you could catch the beach all to yourself.

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It was breathtaking to see the majestic shield volcano Hualālai, which rises 8,271 feet above sea level, off in the distance. It’s the third most active volcano on the Big Island.

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The family we went with are serious about camping. Look at this — he brought a portable toilet for camping and set up a nice, private lua (bathroom) for everyone.

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Here was basecamp. As typical when local families get together, we had way too much food.

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We found a nice, secluded spot and set up our tent. I wish we could have brought the dogs!

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Some of the happy campers! We were prepared with everything from bocce ball to bodyboards.

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We took out a two-man kayak to explore the water. That’s Hualālai in the distance.

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We lucked out with great conditions for snorkeling and diving. The water was so clean and clear.

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For dinner one night, we had lūʻau stew with taro leaves and chunks of beef and pork. It was simply perfection, especially with fresh poi from Waipi‘o Valley. Just enough salt, too. I couldn’t stop eating it.

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These kids had so much fun here; it was a perfect playground for them. They kayaked, dove, fished, bodyboarded, adventured around — and afterward they got to eat kiawe-grilled steaks and chicken, hot dogs, fresh āholehole (flag tail) and s’mores. It doesn’t get much better than that!

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You’d be hard-pressed to find a better sunset in Hawai‘i outside of Kona — and especially if you’re watching it from Makalawena. I couldn’t have planned a more perfect weekend to rest, relax and heal. Thank you to the Kealoha family for inviting us and letting us eat everything in your coolers. We are humbled by the beauty of our island state. Truly.

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#DoThis: Okinawan Festival this weekend

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Every summer I think about how lucky we are to live in Hawai‘i.

There’s always surf on south shores and bright skies for daylong hikes. The weather is balmy, the oceans is warm, and everyone seems to be just a little happier.

And then there are the festivals, from Duke’s Oceanfest in Waikīkī to the dozens of bon dances at Japanese temples all over the state.

One of my favorites, though, is the annual Okinawan Festival, happening this weekend at Kapi‘olani Park.

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In its 32nd year, the festival, organized by the Hawaii United Okinawa Association, celebrates all things Okinawan, from music to cultural arts.

But the real draw, at least for me, is the food.

Andagi (deep-fried doughnuts, top), champuru (shoyu pork, stir-fried veggies and luncheon meat with rice) and taco rice (exactly what it sounds like) top my list of favorites.

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But the one Okinawan delight I’m desperate to try — and I can’t believe I haven’t eaten it before — is the Oki Dog, a hot dog topped with Zippy’s chili and wrapped in a soft tortilla with shredded shoyu pork and lettuce.

Oh, yeah.

The only thing it needs is maybe a dollop of mayonnaise.

More than 3,000 of these culturally confused dogs are sold every year since its introduction.

I really am surprised I haven’t had one yet.

Well, I guess there’s always this weekend!

The 32nd annual Okinawan Festival, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Aug. 30 & 31 at Kapiolani Park in Waikīkī, Oʻahu. For more information, visit here.

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