Category: Travel

Rocky Mountain National Park / First Open Week!

2017 06 04 145200 neversummer 20170623 1216406316Colorado is justly famous for its mountains. The Rockies rise up in the middle of the continent like a wall meant to stop colonization and make the place rugged, remote, and scenic.

Alas, humanity is really good at beating down nature, and the Rockies were no match for our relentless pursuit of wealth and suburbs. By now, there are homes everywhere in the state, except where Federal land ownership prevents construction. But the mountains are still there, marvelous in their beauty and isolation.

Colorado is also famous for a few other things. People think it cold (which it really isn’t, thanks to abundant sunshine and thin air) and they are reminded by the name of the state of the river, the mighty Colorado that scoured the Grand Canyon in the almost infinitely long time it has been flowing.

Take these three things: the mountains, the snow, and the Colorado River, and put them all in one place. That’s bound to be the most Coloradan place in the state, right? And that’s what is Rocky Mountains National Park. Home to both the headwaters of the Colorado river and Longs Peak, one of the most prominent Fourteeners in the United States. Land of hikers and backpackers and hordes of tourists. 

2017 06 04 141421 20170623 1063009743There is only one road that cuts through the park, the aptly named Trail Ridge Road. Most people drive it East to West, starting in the very picturesque town of Estes Park, climbing up to the Alpine zone, and then descending into the Colorado River Valley. Every year, the road is closed when the snow storms make passage impossible. Every year, Coloradans wait for the weekend when the snow is cleared and we can all drive to the most beautiful landscape to stand in an endless line of cars.

Getting into Estes Park is easy. You follow one of the three highways, US 36, US 34, or CO 96, that converge onto the town. You also can’t miss Estes Park: once you enter the valley, you’ll see a beautiful town surrounded by high mountains in a green valley, just behind a reservoir. It’s a spectacular setting, as evidenced by the number of real estate companies that set up shop in town.


Hiking Green Mountain

Green Mountain trailI bought my house in Lakewood in great location. To my West, the mountains in a series of ascending peaks, including the giant tower of Creation Rock in Red Rocks Park. To my South, the beautiful Bear Creek Lake Park (also: a handful to say) with the public beach and water skis on Soda Lake. To my North, of course, the big hulking mesa known as Green Mountain.

It’s been a while I’ve lived here, but I never hiked up Green Mountain. Much of it was simply because it was too cold or snowy, but finally it’s warmed up and it was time to try hit the summit. I packed a protein bar and carried a giant jug of water (you’ll need both) and set out to conquer my first Colorado mountain (that didn’t have a ski lift).

The first pleasant surprise is the trail system. Trails cross the mountain everywhere, they are superbly maintained, and the place is teeming with hikers, bikers, and occasionally horse riders. Google Maps, which I used for orienting, only has a small subset of the trails available, so make sure you get a better map from the City of Lakewood site or at the parking lot.

I am lucky and don’t have to drive at all. I just walk from my front door and I am on the trails nine minutes later. If you have to park, though, there are several pretty spacious lots, that though fill up relatively quickly on a warm weekend. The main entrance is on W Alameda Parkway on the East side, while the quickest way to the top is on the West side, across the mountain from CO 470 (Rooney Road Trailhead). 


The Big Island

{moszoomimglink:Waipi’o – tiny Hi’ilawe falls} I am writing this fresh from a one week vacation to Kona, spent mostly exploring and marveling at the miracles of this biggest of the Hawaiian islands. It is so big, indeed, that it would easily fit all other islands combined.

{moszoomimglink:All of Mauna Loa} Like all other islands in the chain, Hawai’i is formed by volcanoes that rise up all the way from the bottom of the sea. While underwater, the lava cools very quickly, generating a mountain that is very steep. Once the ocean surface is passed, the lava turns out to be very fluid, so that the aerial part of the islands is quite flat. Don’t expect the volcanoes to look like Mount St. Helens or Vesuvius: they are gentle in slope, and the only really steep grade is where erosion has eaten away a chunk of mountain.

{moszoomimglink:Kohala} The five volanoes that comprise the island are very different in nature. Kohala, the oldest, is weathered and looks already a little like Kauai: deep valleys on the windward side, dry shrubland on the leeward side. Mauna Kea, the next oldest and highest point in the state of Hawai’i, is the steepest of them all, looking on a clear day like a dome. Hualalai, which dominates Kona’s skyline, is not really very remarkable. Mauna Loa, just a hundred feet shorter than Mauna Kea, is so huge in mass, you barely notice it has a slope at all, looking at it from a distance.

{moszoomimglink:It was really flowing} The fifth volcano is the reason most people want to visit the island: Kilauea is the most active volcano on Earth, and on a good day you can actually see the lava flowing almost under your feet!

As for my personal impressions: Hawai’i is evidently the poorest of the main islands. Some areas (such as East of Hilo, in the Puna district) are so depressed you can barely tell the cars from the volcanic soil that turns rust red after a few millennia. And when you talk with people, they all tell you they’d rather live in Kauai, Oahu, or Maui, but – alas – can’t afford those places.

Now, being poor in Hawai’i is still better than being poor anywhere else, and I love how genuinely happy everybody seems. There is no fake smile for tourists, but I have seen none of the ‘stink eye’ that so many guides mention. And I have seen it all, having toured the island four times in nine days.

{moszoomimglink:Lava black, rest in the sun} Highlights? If you visit, you MUST go to the volcano. If you come back and tell me you haven’t seen it, I’ll ship you right back via FedEx. You just can’t imagine how it feels when you look into a crater whose floor is a frozen lake of lava that still steams. What was a downside to me my be an advantage for you: I found it all too manicured and perfect, with trails that had signs at every crossing, and roads that must be the envy of any San Franciscan (or New Yorker).

{moszoomimglink:The bottom is paradise} Second, pick one of Pololu or Waipi’o valleys to get a glimpse at what a lush tropical valley looks like. Most books favor Waipi’o, but I find Pololu to be more accessible, just as beautiful, and much less crowded. Wouldn’t you want to hike down a trail that passes a guava forest, and a jungle on the way to the next valley?

{moszoomimglink:It is turning dark} Finally, if you have even the slightest interest in Hawaiian culture, history and art, you have to see the Puuhonua o Honaunau, an ancient temple complex South of Kona. You have to go, and you have to walk on the lava shelf and bathe in one of the pools formed by the tides.

{moszoomimglink:Sunday triathlon 02 start} Of course, the biking situation was a big hit for me. And I found dozens of bikers and triathletes on the Kona side – from the pros to the amateur. The town of Kona is full of souvenir shops, the promenade in front of my hotel was crowded in the morning with two dozen triathletes meeting for a training ride, and Queen K, the highway to Waimea, was at all times of the day frequented by a few riders. Nothing like Foothill Expressway, of course, but good enough to keep me interested. Unfortunately (for me, not for the triathletes) the island is fairly flat and the roads barely make a nudge to the up or down.


Oh, what a surprise! You won’t know what you missed in life until you got to Kauai.

{moszoomimglink:Wailua falls}The Northernmost major island of the chain, Kauai is the one that gets the most water. It is the oldest, too, so that the flanks of the volcano that makes up the bulk of its mass are eroded into deep valleys with sharp razor-edged mountain ridges to separate them. There is, as usual, a wet side and a dry side to it. The wet side is so wet, it is famous for being the wettest spot on Earth. Mount Waialeale is not the highest point on Kauai, but surely the wettest. I am positive that Waialeale must be Hawaiian for “watch out, it’s slippery!”

{moszoomimglink:04 Kirk Mark and Camy having fun}The dry side is home to Waimea Canyon, the Grand Canyon of the Pacific. Looks nothing like the Grand Canyon, but it’s really a wonderful sight. Additionally, you’ll have the pleasure of an immense beach on the dry side. Polihale beach goes on and on for miles and miles, one of the few such beaches on the islands.

There aren’t many real sights on Kauai. There are no real cities, but the charm of a few of those that try to be is infinite. My favorites are no doubt Hanalei in the North, Kapa’a in the East and Koloa in the South. Waimea at the mouth of the canyon is supposed to have similar charm, but a quick visit would not confirm.

{moszoomimglink:28 The ditch gets deeper, the soil redder}And yet… Nature is at its best here. The soil of the island is rich in volcanic iron, which gives it a splendid rust red. Imagine an island of rust offset against tropical greens of plants that feed on the minerals and the plentiful water. And now imagine these reds and greens against a sea of blue and turquoise and deep indigo. The sky plays with its pinks and oranges and whites of clouds. You end up with a canvas of nature, with every place having a magic to the eye that is unrivaled except by itself in a different light.

{moszoomimglink:50 Light shining on the valley floor}To aid nature’s colors, the scenery is astounding. The deep, deep erosion that characterizes the island has produced some of the most varied topography imaginable. In the Southern end of the island you still see how the volcano was once shaped, a flat dome that deserves is scientific name of shield volcano. But right then and there you see how the shield suddenly drops into Waimea canyon, a chasm that goes almost all the way to the sea.

{moszoomimglink:Who would believe these colors are real}If you can, spend all the time you have on seeing nature. Book a helicopter tour, a sailboat tour, a hiking tour. You need to see it to be able to say it was worth it. And once you have seen Kauai, you won’t be able to imagine a more beautiful spot on Earth.


{moszoomimglink:A stream falling into a pool}Maui-no-ka-oi, Maui is the best! That’s the motto of the island, and funny enough, it seems consistently not to be true. Maui is always second best at whatever it is good. It is the second-largest island; it is the second densest in population; it is the second highest; it is the second most urban; it has the second-best nightlife and the second best shopping; nature is second best, as is the diversity of the people.

{moszoomimglink:Coastline on the way to Hana}Overall, though, Maui could be the best. Its free-wheeling spirit makes it more Fun than the other islands, and its natural attractions are close to human life and concentration. Kilauea beats Haleakala any time as a volcano, and the famous Road to Hana can’t beat the Na Pali coast on Kauai – but you can’t actually see Kilauea and Na Pali on one day.

{moszoomimglink:Just another marvelous lava cape}Maui is probably the best spot if you are an all-around person that loves to have fun. You can go and have breakfast in Lahaina and stroll around shops (not my favorite thing to do, but it may suit you), then leave to tour the West Maui side and see the Blowhole and Kahakuloa. Or you can skinny-dip at Little Beach, body-surf at Big Beach and finally snorkel like the champions in the Aquarium, which you’ll have to reach through a vast lava field hike. How about the famous Road to Hana? You drive for hours and hours behind mooning tourists from Ohio and elderly Californian widows, but you see tropical forests and waterfalls as you’ll never see them again in your life.

{moszoomimglink:12-26 Streaks of colored sands merge at the bottom}Whale watching anyone? Dolphin hopping? Turtle seeing? Sunset cruises, parasailing, and even a decent meal or a fun dance bar in Kihei, that’s all included in a vacation to Maui. And if Haleakala is four thousand feet shorter than Mauna Kea — who cares, it is mountain enough for all of us, and the hike through the crater (which you can’t do on Big Island) is one of the more mystical experiences you can get.

{moszoomimglink:La – a sliver, really, if you look right}A few words of warning: the bicycle cruises from the top of the volcano are really only for people who don’t like biking. For those who do, the whole affair is immensely boring and marred by the fact that you start at 40F and end at 90F. And when you go to see the sunrise from the top of the volcano, hope that some handsome boy from Minnesota proposes to his charmingly curvvy high-school sweetheart when the sun comes up. It makes the wait and the freezing temperatures worth it.

Oh, and since it’s about me: biking on Maui is fun!

The East Coast

I confess, after Hanauma Bay everything else is a bit ‘so-what?’ You leave the parking lot, look again at the cinder cone and drive on to a long sandy beach. Here I noticed for the first time how quickly the climate changes: you start out in green and lush Honolulu, and here all of a sudden the scenery turns arid, grey, inhospitable. The beach is beautiful and the views of nearby Molokai can be impressive, but you feel like on a desert island.

{moszoomimglink:Jumping dolphin}Past a blow hole and a wonderful body surfing beach, you’ll finally get around the East cape to a greener area. Turns out that the wind predominantly blows from the North-East, so that the exposed side gets all the water. You just drove around the South-East side, which is not exposed (and hence dry). Now you get to see all the water you were always afraid of — on every one of my visits, the East side was quite cloudy with dense dark formations.

You may want to visit Sea Life Park, which has fun shows and lots of fish and marine life. It has a remarkable deep water tank that is full to the brim with sharks, tropical fish and other marinery. There are two dolphin shows and a penguin show, and although I am a cynical European by birth, I was impressed by the grace of the presenters. And seeing a dolphin swim is still a marvel to me. So it gets my vote.

{moszoomimglink:Bridge to the Byodo-In temple}Driving farther, you’ll drive with steep cliffs to your left and the sea to your right. The cliffs (pali in Hawaiian) are a barrier to the moisture and are to be blamed for the clouds. Drive past Kaneohe, and turn left to the Valley of the Temples. This is a remarkable place of worship, where Hawai’i decided to cluster churches, shrines and temples of all religions imaginable. Of all of them, the Buddhist Byodo-In Temple is the most remarkable — a reproduction of a shrine in Japan, it alone is worth the trip to the East coast.

Driving farther up, the plain that separates the mountains from the sea shrinks to the point where tunnels needed to be bored through the former. Hiking paths crawl up the valleys and the spines of the ridges, and Hawaiians come here to celebrate a weekend family trip. Here Oahu is the tropical paradise I wanted to see, with wild banana groves, clusters of papaya and coconut palms.

{moszoomimglink:The Tonga drum show}The plain appears again, and human settlements. A huge Mormon something (place of worship? university?) fills up the hills to the left. Then the Polynesian Cultural Center, a giant affair that tries to explain what Polynesia is about, how Hawai’i fits in and why it is important to preserve cultures. Most people come out of it with a vague idea that Polynesia is about very pretty girls in skirts smiling their facial muscles to a freeze and very handsome boys in skirts drumming their arms to Schwarzenegger proportions. Particularly annoying is the cascaded show effect: since the shows are well announced and in sequence, the throng follows the path of the shows making all but the active show empty. As a result, the park appears either full or completely empty.

{moszoomimglink:Cliff diver jumping from the falls}You reach the North end of the island, famous for the waterfalls of Waimea and for Sunset Beach, allegedly the best surf on Oahu. The former is a really beautiful park-cum-waterfall-dive-show; the latter fun if you are under 30 and want to hang out. I was blessed with calm seas during my visits, which means most surfers were just sitting on their boards, chatting of girls and beer and letting their legs hang from the board as shark bait.

South-East Oahu

Once you leave town to the East, things become quickly suburban. Evidently, the more affluent side of society resides here. Some beautiful mansions and houses are built around Diamond Head, then urban complexes like the ones you’d find in Southern California.

{moszoomimglink:Hanauma Bay}Once you cross the artificial lagoon of Hawaii Kai, with its huge number of New Homes with New Home Smell, you’ll start seeing what most people want to see when they fly to Hawaii: unspoiled land. Actually, one of the first attractions on your way is one of the most astonishing ones: Hanauma Bay.

Hawaii Kai ends in a hill that leads to a cinder cone (to your left). A large parking lot to your right tells you you are at an attraction site. Park there and go down the hill. You’ll have to pay for entry (I didn’t have to back in the days), and the crowds may overwhelm you – but it’s definitely worth it!

Hanauma Bay is the remnant of a crater whose East wall collapsed as a result of wave action. What you’ll see is a steep circular wall that opens up to the ocean; a shallow bay with turquoise water; a reef that cuts across the center of the bay; and a thousand snorkelers reveling in and around the reef, to see the closest thing to a live-in aquarium you could imagine.

{moszoomimglink:Not easy without a flash}It is amazing to see all those species you know from your zoo or aquarium at home. The colors alone will make you think you are in a psychedelic dream, the yellows and blues and greens dancing around you, unafraid. You’ll have to watch not to step on the coral reef, since that dies quite easily when used as a stepping stone, resulting in death to reef, to fish and finally to the fun of the bay.

You can hang out with the thousands of people on the bay. There is a beautiful walk that goes around the North end of the beach to Toilet Bowl, a fun sight when the sea is not calm. A lava shelf was ground thin by the breakers, which caused a hole to form. Water flushes in and out with the waves, looking amazingly similar to the real thing. People actually sit and wait for the water to push them up and suck them in. Don’t do it if the sea is too rough, or you might actually get syphoned off into it.

Just a few feet from the bowl is a smaller hole. As I got there the first time, a guy was tentatively kneeling in front of it, looking quite scared if you ask me. He wavered and tried, and finally (and to my utmost surprise) jumped head first into the hole, barely twice his size. He was gone for good, I was sure, suicidal at best. But then a noise came from the sea, and the guy was back to life. Evidently, this hole was part of a lava tunnel not unlike the Toilet Bowl, one that led to the sea and allowed the temerary to be sucked in and out easily.

I didn’t try. Next time, when you are around to take a picture, I might think about it.


The urban heart of the islands is something that you want to avoid if you are traveling to Hawai’i because of the islands. If you are flying in from L.A. or N.Y., N.Y., then you’d be likely to die outside of an urban environment and Honolulu is close enough to carry you over the one week vacation.

{moszoomimglink:From Queen’s beach}Honolulu has most trappings of modern cities, including a vast array of shopping malls and stores. There are beautiful museums and galleries and universities, but none of that really compares with the corresponding institutions and businesses on the mainland. At the same time, you have to search really hard to find a real place, a Hawaiian place.

Since the airport is on the West side of the city and Waikiki is on the East, you’ll get a chance to drive through town. I tried both the (crowded) freeway and the (slow) road on the ocean’s edge. The former gives you some impressive vistas of Diamond Head, the crater that marks the end of Waikiki; the latter gets you right through downtown, unimpressive as it may be.

Waikiki is a huge conglomerate of hotels in all categories. Right now the most luxurious is the Kealani, the cheapest has no name, and the price difference is probably somewhere in the 10000% range. In between, you’ll probably find the accomodation that suits you.

{moszoomimglink:Hula show in Honolulu}Expect little, and you’ll be satisfied. Waikiki has a beautiful beach and the feel of Rio, with all those high-risers in the background. It is definitely not what you dream of when you think tropics. The weather is spectacular, very mild and warm. The surf is not the best, so that the masses of tourists on surf boards are continuously disappointed. Honolulu means sheltered bay in Hawaiian…

If you decide to stay in Honolulu, there are a few things really worth seeing:

  • The Royal Hawaiian Hotel, a.k.a. the Pink Palace — an excellent example of Hawaiian architecture
  • Queen Kapiolani Palace downtown — if for nothing else, then for the pleasure of having been in the only Royal Palace in the United States!
  • Chinatown — much more interesting than downtown, even more than Waikiki, Chinatown is very much a place where Chinese and kamaainas shop and live. It is a lot of fun if you are not a purist, and you can get some really incredible food
  • Paradise Gardens — there is a piece of tropical paradise just a few minutes up the hills; definitely worth it
{moszoomimglink:The backyard of the Royal Hawaiian}

What Did I See?

No point in telling you what to do, since that’s covered in an impressive array of guide books. Let me just tell you what I saw and how I liked it, and you can then match up my opinionated and subjective views with the glorious details of the professionals.


Aloha the Concept

{moszoomimglink:Marco and his mahu lei}Hawai’i does a lot to a person, but little is more profoundly life-changing than aloha. You’ll hear this word uttered mainly as a greeting or a good-bye, but it actually means ‘love’. You might think that a people that throws the word love at anyone they see is a bit careless and insincere, but you and I would be wrong. When Hawaiians throw love around, they do so with abandon and inclusion, and their aloha is meant as a real concept.

You’ll find that Hawaiians nowadays are less likely to shower you with affection, and you may find yourself ill at ease in a congregation of natives of the island. You might feel an overbearing sense of resentment towards whoever you are – or better, what you look like. Remember that in the past two hundred years, Hawai’i has been plundered and raped a many thousand times because it was so inclusive with its love (and because it had few weapons with which it could have defended itself).

{moszoomimglink:A group at the pool}And yet when you find someone that is still imbued in the spirit of aloha, this inclusive, non-possessive kind of human fraternity, you experience something unique. You can learn that there is a way to live that is happy and joyful and doesn’t include success and riches. To me from the Bay Area, that is probably the most important lesson in life, for here we have a place that is so immensely beautiful, and yet so unaffordable that we don’t have the time to enjoy it for fear we will lose our homes.

The candor is lost for good, which is one of the great tragedies of mankind. The remnants are like smoldering cinders, though, and you can use them to light your own fire of aloha, if you are receptive enough.