I flew into Panama City on a red eye and was lucky to be picked up by business associates of my husband, who gave us a tour of the city. I learned a lot in those three hours, along with having the best empanada of my life. Street food is safe to eat in Panama, and delicious! There are also fresh juice stands which are quite common, and so refreshing. I had two large fresh juices, which didn’t quite sit well with my three hour car ride. Best to always have quarters on you in Panama City as the bathrooms are public, but cost 25 cents. I learned interesting facts along this tour, such as the tap water is safe to drink, everything is negotiable in Panama (even the high end retail stores), and I got a detailed explanation of the definition of a Push Button. A “Push Button” in Panama is a very private motel (aka a love motel). Complete discretion and privacy is the main goal of these establishments. They are called “Push Button” because typically you can pull up to a window, push a button, slide some money through a slot, get a key, and head to a room all without actually seeing a person. Being that prostitution is legal in Panama, I’m sure these motels come in quite handy for those in need of privacy. This was personally not the most useful information to me, however it made for a very comical conversation. Our final stop along the tour was at the Fish Market for some ridiculously delicious, fresh, and cheap ceviche. After a red eye flight and a three hour tour, I was ready to relax at my hotel.
I decided to stay in the Casco Viejo area of Panama City. Casco Viejo (Spanish for Old Quarter) is the historic district of Panama City. It was built following the near total destruction of the original Panama City, which was attacked by pirates in 1671. I guess you can say it is the new old Panama City. After reading blog after blog about how this neighborhood is the hip and trendy area of the city, it sounded like a good fit. In the Casco Viejo neighborhood, you will find a huge difference from the busy metropolis of Panama City. This area is filled with old world charm of Spanish colonial buildings, boutique hotels, rooftop bars, and amazing restaurants. You won’t find any chain hotels or restaurants here. Everything is mom and pop.
I booked a room at the absolutely stunning American Trade Hotel. It is located in the heart of Casco Viejo, and everything you would want to see in this area is within walking distance. This hotel is the epitome of mixing old world charm with modern day luxury. This is one of the only hotels in the area with a pool. Let me tell you…it is necessary. Panama is hot and humid and I did not accomplish to have even one good hair day during my stay. Back to the hotel….Did I mention it was stunning? From the beautiful balcony room, food, ambiance, location, pool, grounds, service, adjacent jazz club, bar….I could go on and on. I spent a lot of time at the hotel on this trip, and it truly made my vacation unforgettable.
The food in Panama was phenomenal! I love to eat, and some of the dishes I had here completely blew my mind….dishes I had never heard of or tasted before. The cocktails are also superb. Rum is Panama’s alcohol of choice, however those that read my blogs know that I am a spicy margarita kind of gal. Panama did not disappoint! Every cocktail I had was fresh squeezed, and delicious. As you take the first sip of these drinks, you already want a second one.
I was only in Panama City for six days. I can officially say that I ate and drank my way through Casco Viejo. My favorite dining experience for traditional Panamanian food was Diablicos. They put on a show while you eat, and it was very lively, and fun. It is located directly in front of the President’s Palace, so you get to check that out during your walk to/from. My favorite Rooftop Bar? Well, I have two! Casa Casco, which is directly across the street from the American Trade Hotel, is a super chill spot with great drinks and postcard perfect views of Panama City. If you want a more lively rooftop scene, the best place to go (hands down) is the Tantalo. It is the closest you will get to a nightclub experience in this area. It is all outdoor on the rooftop with great music to dance to and a VIP area. BTW, the restaurant at this hotel is also amazing! I had my favorite meal of the trip at the Tantalo Kitchen. It was a clay pot of tamale mash on top of a bed of slow roasted pork. YUMMMY!
Ok, I think I have beaten in how great the food and cocktails were in this old world Spanish neighborhood. On to the Panama Canal! If you go to Panama City, you simply can’t miss out on visiting the Panama Canal. It is the number one visited site in Panama. The Panama Canal is a waterway that has created a shortcut between the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans. It takes ships (on average 8-10) hours to travel the Panama Canal. This compares to 2 weeks if a ship tried to bypass the canal, and travel around South America. The best place near Panama City to see the ships go through the lock system is Miraflores Visitor Center. The viewing center is directly in front of the locks, so you get a front row seat to watching these huge ships pass through. They also have a restaurant buffet where you can eat lunch, and have wine while taking in all the action. You can visit the museum, and watch a film in both Spanish and English about the history of the Panama Canal. The best time to visit the Panama Canal changes daily, depending on when ships are scheduled to go through.
With one day left to spare, and being so close to so many beautiful islands, I decided it was time for a change of scenery. I got up at 6:00am to catch a 1.5 hour ferry ride to Contadora Island. I felt like I had been transported to another world! It was a small and jungly island with beautiful white sand beaches, and crystal clear waters. I purchased a day pass from the Mar y Oro Hotel which included lunch, two welcome drinks, and umbrella/chairs on the beach. It was absolute paradise, and a really relaxing ending to my trip! If I had one more day (which I always wish I did on vacay), I would have most definitely visited the San Blas Islands. Here you can rent private cabanas to spend the night in paradise. The cabanas don’t have much to them. They have no electricity and sand bottom floors. But who cares, because you can almost have the entire island to yourself for the night. Although still in Panama, these islands belong to the Kuna Indians On this excursion you can snorkel with star fish, and see how these indigenous people live. It wasn’t so bad leaving something behind that I was desperate to do and see because now I am anxious to go back. Until next time Panama!!
You really can’t go wrong with Hawaii! I have visited Maui, Oahu, Kauai, and “The Big Island” of Hawaii, and each island is amazing in it’s own special way. Each island has a different “vibe” unique to itself. I was extremely lucky as a child, as I had family that lived in Hawaii, and I was able to spend extended periods of time there each year. Staying with family, I got to feel as though I was living there while on these trips. I did keiki deep sea fishing tournaments, and spent so much time trolling in the ocean on my family’s boat in hunt of the big kahuna marlin. This is most definitely where my passion for deep sea fishing began!
Since my childhood, I have been visiting Hawaii in a much more touristy fashion. Staying in hotels, and doing as much touristy stuff as I could fit into my vacation has been the norm for me over the years. Although each and every trip has been absolutely amazing, I wanted to plan a trip that reminded me of the time I spent in Hawaii as a child. I wanted to experience feeling like I was living there as a local. To achieve this feeling, it had to be as long of a trip as I could make it. I decided on 7 weeks in summer while the kiddos were out of school. Now which island to choose? I am most partial to Kauai (North Shore) for how lush the landscape is. But for this long of a trip, I chose the island Maui. Maui has beautiful landscape, but it also has a bit of a livelier vibe compared to Kauai. I thought it would be a good mix of beauty and things to do. Let the planning begin!!
I get a lot of questions about how I’m able to take extended trips like this. My husband and I work from home, and can really work from anywhere in the world. These extended trips are obviously working vacations which add to the the feeling of actually living there instead of vacationing.
To stay 7 weeks, I wasn’t trying to stay at the super high end places in town. I needed something reasonable, but also large enough to accommodate my family of six, and a home office set up. I landed at the Sands of Kahana. What a perfect choice! We had a huge three bedroom condo on the beach with a pool, kids pool, mini golf, gym, community beach bbq’s, and a restaurant on the property in case we were feeling too lazy to cook. We also had so many walk-able dining options in the village of Kahana.
This little village of Kahana sits right in between Kaanapali and Kapalua. It is so much more reasonably priced than its neighbors, but still right in the heart of all the action. I highly recommend this area if you are on a budget. For the nights when you would like to put a huge dent in your bank account, you can just hop on over to your neighboring towns to get some fine dining, or an expensive round of golf. You are also just a short drive to Lahaina, where most of the island nightlife resides.
Next, I needed to get a rental car. Getting a rental car for seven weeks isn’t cheap. I found Kimo’s Rent A Car online. They have vehicles of all price points but the one I rented was basically less than a basic vehicle. They gave a great rate on monthly rentals and I spent around $1,000 for the entire 7 weeks. It really was exactly what we needed, and the price was right. I have spent $700 on a car for one week in Hawaii, so I was pretty excited about this deal.
Ok, so now what did we really do on this trip to make us feel less like tourists and more like locals? First off, I hit Costco and stocked up. We bbq’d and ate dinner on the beach about 70% of the time. There was no rush to do anything, and we snorkeled until the sunlight was gone while bbqing on the beach…..that was our evening schedule. I found a bunch of beach equipment on Craigslist for us. I bought boogie boards, ice chest, chairs, an umbrella, beach toys, and I paid $35 for everything. This is a great tip to check there for your stuff because buying these items brand new will be hundreds. When we didn’t feel like bbqing, we would get seafood off the food trucks. We would take our food and paper plate it to watch the sun go down, hike, or chill at a park.
Road to Hana
What did we do with our time outside of being beach bum bqqers? My favorite adventure as a temporary local was going camping for the weekend in Hana. The Road to Hana is so beautiful!! It has waterfalls around every twist and turn, and is the epitome of the “it isn’t about the destination, it’s the journey” quote. I have driven the Road to Hana many times, and have even driven around the entire island in one day. I LOVE IT….but it’s not for everyone. You are truly in the car all day, and the road is very curvy. People with weak stomachs may call it the road to hell. I have definitely learned over the years (having a large family of six) that not everyone likes what I like. And although, I can explore and drive from sun up to sun down, my family would be miserable. However, there was no way I was going to Maui for 7 weeks and not driving the Road to Hana. So I checked into camping. What an amazing experience! I rented all of our gear from Camp Maui which we picked up on the way out of town to Hana. Camp Maui stocked us. We had everything….tent, pads, pillows, sleeping bags (which weren’t necessary), stove, flashlights, propane, etc. It was so reasonable and I didn’t need to pack anything from home other than clothes. We camped at Waianapanapa State Park with hiking, black sand beaches, and water caves. You need to get a permit in advance to camp here so plan ahead. This place gets crazy busy in the day with tourists coming in by the bus loads. We were able to go explore the ins and outs of this park early in the morning and late at night, completely skipping all the crowds.
The best part about this camping trip? We got to explore Seven Sacred Pools for the entire day. This place is gorgeous, and could be my favorite place on all of Maui. It is so far to get here if you are driving in for the day, so most tourists only get a short visit as they have to get back on the road for the very long drive home. Not us! We stayed all day swimming and rock jumping and then drove 15 mins back to our camp for a bbq. This mini vacay was beyond amazing and pretty eye opening for me. I was so happy that my family didn’t want to drive to Hana for the day because it forced me to find a way to achieve exploring this side of the island along with keeping everyone happy. There is more than one way to skin a cat! Ps- I really hate that saying…who came up with that anyway?? Skinning a cat is just wrong. Plus, I love cats.
Back at home in our little village of Kahana we began to make friends with a lot of locals who lived there. I think Kahana is popular with the locals because its cheaper but still so central. When you eat and drink at the same places quite often you begin to run into the same people. We met a local who took us all surfing for a private lesson for next to nothing. No waivers or contracts…just a local teaching us how to ride the waves. This local became our friend, and he spent an entire second day with us taking us to a private property to go fishing.
Best Date Nights/Days
Before arriving on this trip, I found a babysitter to come on a schedule to give my husband and I some adult time. With the grandmas back on the main land, this was an absolute must. I hired a nursing student who was training in Labor and Delivery at the Maui General Hospital. Can you get a better resume for a sitter? She also had nursing student friends to replace her when she was busy.
For most of our dates, we would pack an ice chest, and hang out at the beach all night. But my favorite date night was attending a Reggae Concert at the Maui Tropical Plantation. Maxi Priest and Big Mountain were the big headliners, and it was probably one of the best concerts I have ever seen. Super fun, and definitely something I wouldn’t have squeezed in on a one week vacation. We also spent several nights partying in downtown Lahaina. Fleetwoods was my favorite place to get a drink and listen to live music.
My favorite Day Date was snorkeling at Honolua Bay. It is untapped serenity…so beautiful, and so peaceful. We loved it so much that we planned a second day here to bring back the kids to enjoy with them.
Favorite Touristy Things to do
We didn’t book many tours on this trip, but one that we did do was a snorkeling cruise to Molokini Crater. The snorkeling there is awesome! We saw dolphins along the way and snorkeled with a ton of beautiful fish. The kids loved this cruise! One of them actually started crying when we had to leave the crater. LOL.
One of the seven weeks we had Grandma and Grandpa visit, and we did zip lining and parasailing. I mean you have to get high at least once in Hawaii, right? The kids absolutely loved both these days. This was definitely the one week where we packed in a lot of touristy adventures. After parasailing off of Kaanapali Beach, we ended our day at my favorite happy hour spot on the beach….Hula Grill. You can sip Mai Tais with your feet in the sand while listening to live music. Heaven!
To finish up our one “touristy” packed week we ended it with a traditional Luau. There are so many great Luau’s on Maui. They are no doubt pricey! I chose Royal Lahaina Luau for the simple reason that for every paying adult, you get one child for free. It worked out pretty well with four adults and four kids. This was a perfect way to end our week spent with my parents!
You can stay anywhere on Maui and will be happy with your choice, but the majority of people choose the west or south shore. I’m more partial to the west shore since it is so close to Lahaina, and is a bit more lush. But the south side is beautiful too. So beautiful it is in fact my favorite beach on Maui…Makena Beach. Makena Beach is split into Big Beach and Little Beach with Little Beach being bathing suit optional. From our village in Kahana, it was about a 45 minute drive to get there but so worth it. Stay the entire day!
My favorite beaches on our side of the island were Napili Bay Beach and Kaanapali Beach. Napili Bay Beach is literally the most fun beach I have ever been to with kids. The rolling waves are like an ongoing roller coaster and you can hear the screams of excitement and laughter from the road as you park your car. Boogie boards and floaties make this day an absolute blast. Be careful of the waves wiping out your entire beach set up. It happened to us! Try to sit as far back as possible on the beach away from the water.
Kannapali Beach is home to the famous Black Rock. It is a very popular beach. The snorkeling is awesome and you can jump of the rocks at Black Rock. Super fun!
Favorite Land Activity
You really can’t go to Maui without being blasted with marketing materials everywhere in your face about bike riding down the Haleakala Crater. I have done this ride several times but unfortunately it wasn’t in the cards for us on this trip as our littlest kids weren’t big enough for a ride like this. I have to include a little write up though because it is truly such an experience. You need to get up early for this at 3:00am and take the two hour drive up the crater. It’s cold when you get up there so bundle up! You watch what is hopefully the most beautiful sunrise you have ever seen in your life. Once the sun is up, you begin the bike ride down the crater. There are a million tours going down where you all follow each other in one line all the way down the crater. Not for me!! I’m not big on group activities with strangers. I have always found a company who drove me to the top of the crater, handed me my bike to ride down alone and at my own pace, and then met me at the end of the day to pick me up. Most tours end at the bottom of the crater but I like to continue the bike ride to the Maui Pineapple Winery. The extra ride is rolling hills closer and closer to the coast. It is a beautiful ride! The bonus is you get to end the 18 mile ride with some wine tasting and a picnic.
What To Do When It Rains
Maui isn’t as beautiful as it is without getting rain. My favorite “ohana” day spent during the rain was the aquarium. The Maui Ocean Center is one of the coolest aquariums that I have ever been to. We learned so much and got to see so many fish that are in the Hawaiian ocean waters.
Favorite Family Friendly Hike
As I said, this was a working vacation. I had to keep the kids busy on many days when my husband was holed up in the condo working. My favorite day I spent with them was a very moderate but beautiful hike to the Iao Needle. It was really pretty, and we learned so much history on the battles fought in this area back in the old days.
Well it wouldn’t be a good blog if I didn’t write a bit about food. There are endless amazing dining options on Maui. My all time favorite is Mama’s Fish House. Bring your camera because the location is right on the beach and is quite the photo op. This is definitely an expensive dinner but worth the splurge! And you simply can not visit the island of Maui without going to the famous Cheeseburgers In Paradise. The cheeseburgers are delicious, the cocktails are tasty, the view of the ocean is to die for, the live music is a blast, and the location in downtown Lahaina makes it easy to bar hop around after dinner. Lastly my favorite “cheap eat” on Maui is Ohana Tacos. Seriously…if I didn’t watch my weight, I would live a fulfilled life having Ohana Tacos for every meal! It is the bomb.com! It’s pretty much fast food so perfect to take on the go while adventuring.
So after spending six weeks on Maui we started to get panicky that we only had one week left. We had zero island fever. We really didn’t want to go home. Our time here really allowed us to enjoy everything at our own pace and we truly felt like we were living there. Mission accomplished!!
In our last week we had two back-to-back hurricanes hit. If this had been our only week of vacation, it would have been a huge disappointment! But we felt really lucky to experience it. It was very cool to watch Mother Nature do her thing and once they passed we were left with the calmest ocean and most beautiful sunset of the entire trip. It was quite a farewell.
How to vacation more like a local and not like a tourist in a short vacation
My all time favorite read prior to visiting Hawaii is the Maui Revealed book. The authors have a book for every island and I have purchased the newest edition for every single trip I have taken to the Hawaiian Islands. It gives you hidden secrets that you would never find without it. I’m talking directions like “Hit the 42 mile marker, hike a quarter mile to the left, enter the broken chain link fence, go through the bamboo forest, hike a quarter more mile through the dirt steps and you will find a huge lagoon with a rope swing to spend the day at”. Haha. I have led the way with directions from this book on so many adventures with people I am on vacation with. Believe me I have gotten the stink eye from people traveling with me as they follow me to these secret places. But once there, everyone has always thanked me for such a special experience. Buy the book before going! It is truly the best vacation guide I have ever read!!
Belize is located in Central America. It is a tiny country on the western edge of the Caribbean Sea. Belize is located below Mexico, east of Guatemala, and north of Honduras. Half of Belize is covered by dense jungle. Belize also has many coral reefs, cayes, and islands in the Caribbean Sea. Most of these form the Belize Barrier Reef, the longest in the Western Hemisphere.
When I first began planning my trip to Belize, I read that most first timers break up their trip between the jungle and the beach. I’m very glad I listened to these reviews! Fast forward through an 8 hour plane ride, and a 2 hour drive into the jungle and I landed in the middle of the Belize rainforest in a city called Belmopan. I chose Sleeping Giant Rainforest Lodge to call home for this leg of the trip. It was a larger lodge in comparison to others in the area with 25 rooms and casitas, pool, bar, and a restaurant where you eat every meal.
I’m typically a beach baby, and was nervous about spending time in the remote jungle. Would it be boring? It was a bit of an adjustment upon arrival….no TV, no internet, and no phone in the room. I’ve never been on a trip where I was forced to completely disconnect. I gulped down my rum welcome cocktail, and went to unpack. Now what? That first night I explored the grounds, ate ridiculously amazing food, and closed down the lodge bar. The next four days were filled with adventure, mind blowing food and cocktails (all made fresh), and forced restful recharge.
My activities included a hike through the thick jungle, a bike ride to the orange orchards, paddle boarding on the river, relaxing by the pool, a massage on the river, and a full day of adventure exploring the famous ATM Cave of Belize. ATM stands for Actun Tunichil Muknal. The ATM Cave was the top rated tour to do for adventure, and it did not disappoint. I hired a private guide for this tour which I highly recommend. If you can’t swing private, definitely ask how many people will be on the tour with you, and go with a smaller group. I saw large tours with 10 people going through in a line. They just weren’t getting that much attention from their guide. If you are 10th in the line, how can you learn anything from your guide who is leading? Plus, I had very heightened nerves on this tour. Being the 10th person in line of a tour would have been terrifying (for me). Our guide led us through 6 miles of adventure. We crossed the river (neck deep) six times, hiked, and explored the ATM Cave which you have to swim into. Once in, you climb and swim your way through two miles of total darkness with only a headlamp for sight. I literally had a minor panic attack going on for about three hours. But just like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, the only way out was through. It was pretty amazing learning about the Mayan people, and what this cave meant to them. We came across many artifacts and skeletons that were human sacrifices to the gods. Our guide was Gonzo from River Rat Expeditions. He was so knowledgeable, and actually spends about three months per year living in these Belize caves doing research. He took his time educating and calming my nerves all the way through. Once out of the cave, I was on an adrenaline high. I was so proud I finished but I’m in no rush to do it again. Haha.
For beginning my adventure in the jungle with the question of “will I be bored here?”, I actually began to freak out by day three that I wouldn’t fit in all there was to see. I fell in love with the jungle! I’m usually pretty attached to my phone and staying in touch with my family. For this leg, I had to forget about all of that, and it was all about exploring and recharging.
Once my stay at the jungle lodge had come to an end, I was ready to put my toes in the sand, and have more than one dining option. Five days in the jungle was perfecto, but now it was on to the beach for another nine days. I decided on Ambergris Caye. It is the largest caye (island) of Belize. From the jungle, it was a 2 hour drive to the ferry station and a 1.5 hour boat ride to Ambergris Caye. I chose Captain Morgan’s Retreat as my hotel on Ambergris Caye for the sole reason that they had true beach huts in the sand for much cheaper than your average hotel room. However, we were still part of a huge resort with all the amenities including the only Casino on the island.
OOOOHHHEEEMMMGGGEEE!!! Opening my porch door and stepping into the sand was truly paradise. When I arrived I was warned how bad the bugs were from another guest. He told me to soak myself in bug spray every day. After four days of literally getting eaten alive, I accidentally forgot my bug spray one evening, and didn’t get any bites. I ditched the spray and never had a problem again. Thanks for that sweet advice bro!
The coolest thing about Ambergris Caye is that there are very few cars and the mode of transportation is by golf cart equipped with off road tires. Oh hells ya! Look out for me! I drove that golf cart up and down, and back and forth. We mostly only ate breakfast at our resort and spent the rest of the days beach and bar hopping our way around. Ambergris Caye is so lively! Whether you are eating pizza or the abundant fresh sea food they have to offer, it was always a party. Live music was everywhere. My favorite drive was a 40 minute golf cart ride to Secret Beach. It was a bumpy adventure through the center of the island to a beautiful beach with food and music. A must see (or drive) while on Ambergris Caye.
Belize is famous for it’s ocean life. I’m sadly too big of a wimp to dive but the snorkeling was the best I have ever seen with my own eyes. Belize has the second largest coral reef system in the world, with Australia’s Great Barrier Reef being the largest. If you like diving and snorkeling this is truly a wonderland, or wonderwater I guess. Our captain took us to Hol Chan Marine Reserve . As soon as you get in the water there are a gazillion fish around you. I saw huge spotted eagle rays, eels, large puffer fish, endless schools, oh ya….and sharks! Our second stop that our captain took us to was Shark Ray Alley where he chummed for sharks to come right up to the boat. My crazy husband jumped into the water to swim with them. I volunteered to be his photographer from inside the boat. 😉 The day was perfect. I wish I had spent more time exploring the reef of Belize because (not to be lame) it was magical.
Well after exploring every nook and cranny of Ambergris Caye, pigging out at all the fresh seafood restaurants, bar hopping to every bar, and hearing every live band on the island, I jumped on the ferry to explore the sister island of Ambergris Caye….Caye Caulker. It’s a 30 minute hop to this tiny island that has a super laid back vibe. There were a lot of backpackers, and simple people who love to party. If you bring more than a bathing suit, cover up, and flip flops to this island, you have over packed. You walk everywhere on Caye Caulker, and I spent most of the day at a place called the Split. A hurricane split this island in half, and they turned it into the largest place to party with a picture perfect setting. They have a bar there called the Lazy Lizard that has everything from hot bodies to grannies with fanny packs twerking and taking shots. I took the last ferry ride home to Ambergris Caye, which was a very fun ride home at night. I wished I packed a backpack and stayed overnight. One more day would have been fun to run back into the friends I made there in such a short time.
One last day on Ambergris Caye to stuff my face with fresh seafood, drink too many fresh squeezed margaritas (the ice was safe), and listen to one last performance of live reggae music (my favorite). The people of Belize are so incredibly friendly, and I always felt safe day and night. Belize was a great trip and mixing in the jungle with the beach was a twist I enjoyed more than I realized I would. I also brought home five dread locks! Lol.