12:00 AM in Gilroy

I consider myself a fairly normal and sane person. Sure, I'm a glutton and I have a decidedly warped sense of humor; but beyond that, I'm a relatively well-adjusted adult male with a sense of self respect and a grudging willingness to coexist with other people under most circumstances.

Which brings me to my next question: how the HELL do I find myself driving down to the Gilroy Premium Outlets late on Thanksgiving night, for the Midnight Madness Day After Thanksgiving Sale?!

According to the San Jose Mercury News, approximately 10,000 cars had traveled to the Gilroy outlets by 3AM on Friday, and 20,000 cars by the time the main sale ended at 6AM. Normally, if I read something like that I'd just say "huh," and promptly ignore that number... but when you're knee-deep in a miasma of vehicular exhaust and processed garlic (one of which I dig by itself, and it ain't exhaust), and trying to navigate a parking lot while dodging both jaywalkers with their heads buried in outlet guides and idling cars double-parked in an aisle wide enough for exactly 2.5 cars, the reality of 10,000 cars really hits you hard.

This is not joyful shopping, with people singing Christmas carols as they shop side by side in a wonderful joining of America's crass consumerism. This is horrible and vengeful shopping, where the strong shoppers use the blood of the vanquished to help slide their overladen shopping bags to the backs of their SUVs before going back for more carnage. This is capitalism combined with ultimate fighting combined with attitudes and actions that would make Machiavelli hunt for his security blanket. This is 75% Stephen King, 45% Clive Barker, 60% H.P. Lovecraft, and 20% Charles Dickens (which is still mathematically valid, as everything's half off.) This is a group of rabid consumers whose infectious insanity could cause Ghandi and the Dalai Lama to get into a no-holds-barred slapfight over the last Summer Sausage at Swiss Colony (at least they couldn't resort to hair pulling.)

This kind of shopping is, God help me... kind of fun.

Anyway, we head to Gilroy (about 30 minutes away) at about 10:40PM, in the hopes that we might get there before the major rush. This is proof that we've never done this type of thing before; the people who've done this before got to Gilroy at around 2PM and had their Thanksgiving turkeys delivered to them in line. And because we've never done this before and decide to go on an impulse, we of course get stuck in traffic on the freeway about a mile before the exit, since the poor traffic light at the end of the offramp is woefully unprepared for Black Friday mania and is only letting six or seven cars through at a time. We finally manage to get to the outlets themselves at 11:45, and drive around the parking lot looking for a vacant spot. Some stores are already letting people shop, and we do see people getting into their cars and leaving, but there's a queue of 5 cars at the front of each aisle, just sitting and waiting for the first sign of reverse lights. After about half an hour, I convince Lucie to start shopping, and I'll find a spot and let her know where I park Meg. I let her off in front of Lane Bryant, and continue my quest for a parking space.

An hour later, she calls me and says she's done shopping.

I'm still circling, looking for a parking spot. I can no longer hear my iPod's Christmas music playing over my mad gibbering and insane cackling, and I've burned about a quarter tank of gas and opened a hole in the ozone layer that can never be repaired, but oddly enough I'm still feeling like shopping myself, so we trade places and Lucie circles the parking lot while I head off to Harry & David for snacks for my people at work (which we have dubbed "Nerd Chow.")

Four minutes later, I call her and tell her I'm done shopping.

Hey -- I'm a dude, and I don't have to try on truffles to know they fit just fine.

We head on back home, and notice that the line to get off the freeway is even longer at 1:30 in the morning than it was at 11:00 at night. Our senses overwhelmed, our gas tank empty, our fists bruised and bloodied, and our wallets sore, we get back to San Jose both victorious and sleepy. We fall asleep knowing that we have participated in one of the most ridiculously capitalist and commercial events of the year, Black Friday; and that we will never, ever, EVER do this sort of thing again.

Unless they have a really awesome sale or something.


16GB from Apple.

Hi. My name is Raymond, and I’m a technogeek. I’m such a geek, I’m thinking about building a robot that would push up my glasses for me; it could clip to a pocket protector and use solar power. And LEDs – it’d have to have LEDs.

Okay, so maybe I’m not quite that bad, but I’m a technogeek nonetheless. Hey, I work in the tech industry; it helps keep me interested in what I do, and it helps earn us money so we can pay the bills. On the other hand, sometimes it COSTS us money… and for that, I blame Apple.

See, the only reason I haven’t gotten an iPhone yet is that we just re-upped for a two-year stint on T-Mobile earlier this year, and of course the iPhone is AT&T specific (until someone comes up with a way to unlock it easily, at any rate,) so I can’t in good conscience justify paying tons of money to break our T-Mobile contract, and I don’t want to enter into a second two-year contract with a second mobile provider just so I could have an iPhone while Lucie uses the T-Mobile service. Technogeekism does have its limits.

And Steve Jobs knows this, and I’m fairly sure he’s overheard me talking about it in our car (since I’m also fairly certain Jobs has every single vehicle in the greater Bay Area bugged so he can listen to our conversations, as part of his insidious plans for world domination.) So he comes out with the iPod Touch, combining all the awesome cool factor of the touch screen, the amazing quality video playback, the sleek and purty and oh so shiny polished metal and black glass design, and the incredibly user-friendly menu interaction of the iPhone, and without the required 24-month shackles to AT&T. Sure, it doesn’t have the digital camera or the EDGE online capabilities that the iPhone has, but to make up for that the iPod Touch does have Wi-Fi capability, so whenever you go to a Wi-Fi enabled location (Starbuck’s, hotels; even a few McDonald’s restaurants I’ve seen) you can use the integrated Safari browser and go surfing to your geeky little heart’s content.

Don’t want to carry around printouts or struggle with road maps? Get the map you want online, save it as a JPEG, and toss it on your iPod. You can access the map image, zoom in by double-tapping the screen, and scroll around the image by simply dragging your finger to move the map. Maybe not as cutting edge as having GPS-based navigation system, but as long as you can read street signs you can get from point A to point B using technology that causes envy among your friends.

Missed that episode of Psych yesterday? Download it to your Touch, and spend your lunch break at work snorting chicken noodle soup out of your nose at the wacky hijinks those boys get into on that wide screen goodness. Assuming you’re eating chicken noodle soup, at any rate. If you’re eating meatloaf and you snort chicken noodle soup out of your nose, call the doctor. And Ripley’s.

The iPod Touch advertisements online say they they’ll ship by the 28th, but a few websites say that the iPods are available in stores as of late last week. So Friday evening, we go to the Apple Store at Valley Fair Mall and I poke my head in. Sorry, I'm told; they’re sold out already (less than 48 hours after being set on the shelves!) Luckily, we’re headed to Oakridge Mall after that anyway, so I go to the Apple store in Oakridge… and they’re sold out there as well.


I get the numbers of the Apple stores in Palo Alto (Stanford Shopping Center), Walnut Creek, Pleasanton, and Los Gatos, and two stores in San Francisco. Sold out, sold out, sold out, sold out, and sold out at both.


So let’s try NON-Apple stores. I get the numbers for Best Buy at Santana Row, Almaden, Mountain View, Cupertino, and Gilroy. Sold out, sold out, sold out, sold out… and we have A COUPLE LEFT AT THE BEST BUY IN GILROY OHMIGODOHMIGOD IT’S LIKE MEETING BRUCE CAMPBELL IN PERSON weneedtogotoGilroyNOWNOWNOWNOWNOW.

I convince Lucie that we need to go to Gilroy (though, seeing as how the outlet stores are there, it wasn’t that difficult to do), and I do my best Dale Earnhardt Jr. impression on my way down there.
We get there, get out of Meg, and I practically fly into the store, running like a diuretic Dachshund, knocking down old women in walkers and pushing children in wheelchairs out of my way in my mad dash to the iPod area… and they have One. 16GB. iPod. Touch. Left. I do my best not to squeal like a Canadian schoolgirl meeting Mike Ricci, and calmly say, “I’ll take it.”
I’m pretty sure Lucie bought some stuff at some other store, and I think I went some place else and did something too, but in all honesty I’m too busy petting my new technology and making happy cooing noises to pay any attention. I just hope I didn’t do anything embarrassing that was caught on video.

Although… if I did, do me a favor and put it on YouTube; I’ll check it out on my iPod Touch.


The world's most frightening IKEA spokesman, on that nifty widescreen.


Six Years of Wedded Bliss.

So, in just a couple of days Lucie and I will have been married six years.

There have been quite a few ups, quite a few downs, and a couple of massive plummets, but I wouldn't have traded this particular roller coaster ride for anything else out there.

My wonderful wife kept us afloat financially while I was unemployed for over two years straight. She also kept me going emotionally during that time -- and let me tell you, that was rough. I did what I could to help keep her going during some family tragedies that shouldn't happen to anybody, much less in such rapid succession.

And yet...

We managed to pay off Leasa, back when I was still unemployed, no less. Last year we went to Vegas, and this year we went to Hawaii for the first (but certainly not the last) time. And we just bought a car less than two months ago.

And don't get me started on the dinner at Alexander's.

With all of the ups and all of the downs, she's with me and I'm with her, as we were meant to be. We share in the joys and pain of life, and support each other though thick and thin. Somehow, "codependent" doesn't seem like a strong enough word.

She's the person in whom I can confide, in whose arms I feel secure, and without whom I cannot ever imagine living.

And I count myself lucky each and every day to have her as my wife.

I love you, Lucie.

Happy anniversary.


Sixteen Hours in Tahoe

So we plan to leave work early on Friday, as a way of celebrating Lucie’s birthday. We’d talked about what we wanted to do and where we wanted to go, but hadn’t made any actual plans. On the way in to work, however, we hear Kevin Nealon’s commercial about Lake Tahoe’s recovery from the Angora Hills fire, and about how even though the fire devastated over 3,000 acres of land and over 200 homes, the tourism industry is still chugging along just fine.

From what I’ve read, tourism fell by about 30% as a result of the fire, which isn’t too terribly surprising, so the tourism board had long-time resident Kevin Nealon do his radio spot as a way of drumming up the visitors… and you know what? It worked on us, at least. We might be able to enjoy smaller crowds because of the drop in tourism, and we’d be able to support the community’s recovery by spending some money while we’re there. Win-win.

Of course, by “spending some money” I mean at the casinos, so technically to be supporting Tahoe we’d have to lose the money gambling, so it’d be win-lose-win, and if we did it in Vegas it could be win-lose-win-Wynn, and if Lou’s Donuts was still around and we brought some to Vegas and gambled… but I digress.

At any rate, we hear the commercial on the way in to work, and we decide that if it’s good enough for Kevin Nealon, the best out of the poor replacements for Dennis Miller, it’s good enough for us. Semi-spontaneous road trip, here we come!

We leave work around 12:30, get home around 1, get a little delayed while packing, and hit the road around 2:30 or so. A bit later than we wanted to leave – we end up running to heavy traffic leaving the Bay Area and heading inland – but we’ve got a comfy car, we’ve got iTunes playing… and we’ve got a bunch of Krispy Kreme donuts.

See, Krispy Kreme, as part of their company anniversary, is offering anybody with a July 13th birthday a free dozen donuts on that day. Lucie’s birthday just so happens to be on July 13th, and there’s a Krispy Kreme right off Hwy 680 along the way to Tahoe. So already, we figure we’re in the black.

We hit more traffic crossing the Benicia Bridge, and again in Fairfield (home of the Budweiser brewery as well as the Jelly Belly factory), and some more traffic in Sacramento… by my reckoning, we may be spending more time parked on the freeways than actually driving on them, but we finally make it to South Lake Tahoe around 9:00 or so.

We see what lodging is available, filter out what’s too crowded (sure doesn’t look like tourism is down, judging by the hordes of loud drunk folks at the casinos!) or too expensive (when the “vacancy” sign means that you do have one room available, but it’s a junior suite that’s more than twice the price of the other rooms, just turn the “vacancy” sign off, dude!) or too far away (the rates might be good, but I’m hearing the married siblings in the room next door playing “dueling banjos” so we’re leaving), and end up at a slightly run-down but affordable joint located about half a mile from Stateline. Sure the place might be lacking an A/C unit and actually still uses real door keys instead of magnetic strip cards, but it’s also a mere $80 for the night, and that leaves us more money for gamb—err, supporting Tahoe. And we’re okay with that; considering we’re splurging just on coming up here, no need to go wacky crazy with the spending on everything.

Speaking of non sequiturs, When the heck did Caesar’s Lake Tahoe turn into Montbleu?! Smokin’ Aces -- which was filmed there -- wasn’t that bad, was it? (Actually, we watched it recently – yeah, it was that bad. I’d have changed my name if I were associated with it. Ben Affleck may have been the bomb in Phantoms, but he bombed in this junker along with everyone else.)

Anyway, we drop off our luggage and the remaining Krispy Kremes in the hotel room and hit the casinos. We park Meg at the Montbleu and start there, then move on to Bill’s. Montbleu likes me a little more than it does Lucie, but Bill apparently misses both of us, and we do okay there. We don’t make a profit or anything, but at least our money lasts longer.

We hit the all-night restaurant at the Montbleu on the way out for a late-night meal (the coconut shrimp appetizers are yummy, and while my mushroom burger isn’t worth the price they’re charging [think “five dollar milkshake’] it is mighty tasty), and then we head back to the hotel for some sleep.

In the morning, we hit the casinos on the other side of the street (well, okay; just the Horizon, since neither of us are doing well enough to warrant continuing on to Harrah’s and Harvey’s), and have a late breakfast before leaving town around 1PM.

I always enjoy the drive back from South Lake Tahoe along Hwy 50 more than coming in. Maybe it’s the lack of urgency and desperation in the drivers around me, maybe it’s the fact that we’re on the mountain side of the road instead of the butt-puckering side right next to the edge of the cliff, maybe it’s because we usually end up arriving at night but leaving during the day… who can say? At any rate, we enjoy a nice leisurely drive from Tahoe to Placerville where we make our usual stop at Apple Hill’s Boa Vista orchards and stock up on fresh apple cider and other fruity products.

From there, we mosey through Sacramento before making another stop in Fairfield’s Jelly Belly factory, where we stock up on our friend the simple carbohydrate, in various flavors and forms. Jelly Belly’s “Belly Flops” candies may be freakish and sometimes a little ugly, but they’re just as tasty as their QC-accepted cousins and they’re a lot cheaper, and I’m not sure my coworkers even notice what they look like before they descend upon them like locusts with PhDs.

We end up back in San Jose around 7:30, with a lighter bank account but a heavier car, thanks to the goodies we bought; happy, sated, and proud that we were able to help assist with the recovery of one of the world’s most beautiful places… although in a rather self-serving way.


7-Eleven in Mountain View

So it’s late evening on July 2th, and Lucie’s online while I’m playing Diablo 2 on the laptop. She comes across a news blurb that says as a promotion for the upcoming Simpsons movie, eleven different 7-Eleven stores across the US (plus one in Canada) are converting to Kwik-E-Marts, complete with store façade, in-store decorations, and uniforms for the employees…. And that the nearest one to us just happens to be in Mountain View.


The stores were converted early on the 2th, and the 7-Eleven website doesn’t have the converted store locations listed yet. I get a little assistance from my friend Google, and find a message board where someone in Mountain View who has been to the store gives out the location… it’s right off 101 at Shoreline Blvd., about a 15-20 minute drive from our apartment.


So we head on out, groove our way on up Hwy 85 to 101,and before we know it we’re in Springfield… or at least as close to Springfield as we can get without being animated. There’s a small crowd of kids outside – the store is across the street from a movie megaplex, so there’s a bunch of wander-in traffic – but the store itself is fairly calm. We pick up some Buzz Cola and a box of Krusty-O’s; I grab a copy of the comic book Radioactive Man (“special origin issue!”); and we hit the Squishee machine for our frozen sugary beverage fix. Waving goodbye to the life-size image of Jasper in the freezer case, we walk out with our purchases and head on back home.

In a fit of fanboy mania, I open the original packaging on my Radioactive Man #1 and read it, thinking after the fact that I probably shouldn’t have opened it… or at the very least, I should have bought two copies.


You can buy Buzz Cola, Krusty-O’s, Squishees, Apu bobble head figurines, and other Simpsons-related items at most regular 7-Elevens (though it’s pretty darn hard to find anything other than the Squishee in stock as of this writing), but in this dude’s humble opinion, if you’re gonna spend some bucks on Buzz Cola, it really ought to be at a real live Kwik-E-Mart.


Six Cylinders in Fresno

So the last several times Lucie and I have gone down to Fresno we’ve had to rent a vehicle, since our beloved Leasa is getting on years and distance (over ten years and 136K miles) and just isn’t up for a long road trip. The last time we tried, we had to turn back before we were halfway there because smoke started pouring out from under the hood, which as it turns out is not as good for the engine as I hoped it was. Note to self: ribs are better when smoked; turkey is better when smoked; vehicles not so much.

At any rate, we’d been thinking about getting a second vehicle for when one of us has to work late and has some advance notice. Being a one-vehicle couple does have its benefits, but its drawbacks as well. For the money saved on fuel and insurance, there’s the necessary disruption to both schedules when only one need be skewed.

Long story slightly less long, while we’re in Fresno we decide to go looking at vehicles. One benefit of having driven lots and lots of rental vehicles is that we tried to rent as wide a variety as possible to see how we lived driving the different styles. One of the vehicles we liked most was the Hyundai Sonata, so we stop by the Hyundai dealership to poke around.

We get into a couple of different models in addition to the Sonata, and during the drive around the lot we see a couple of used (excuse me, “Certified Pre-Owned”) Sonatas on sale. We stop and take a look, and find a teal 2006 6-cylinder Sonata that really stands out to us. It’s got a sun roof, which Lucie loves; it’s a rental return that only has 11,000 miles, which I love; and it’s one of two used cars on sale for $15,900, which both of us like a whole lot. It’s still more than we want to spend, but that’s what the bargaining part is for.

We take it out for a test drive, I end up driving further than any of us really wanted (stupid confusing freeway exits that dump you right back onto the freeway going the same direction – and Lucie says San Jose is bad), and we decide to have a sit down and see what we can work out.

Now, Hyundai and Kia are slightly different than most other auto makers in that their initial prices are lower than their competitors’ – the South Korean auto makers (sister companies since Hyundai bought out Kia a few years back) lose a little bit of the overhead in order to offer a more attractive face price to their customers. According to a few people with whom we spoke, this means that there simply isn’t much haggle space when you buy one of these cars – what you see is pretty much what you should expect to pay. We decide to test this theory, and hard.

Privately, Lucie says she doesn’t want to spend more than $14,500 on a car. We opt to start at $14,000 even just to see how they react, and work from there. Now, I’ll admit I don’t know all that much about poker faces, but when the salesman chokes on his own tongue while laughing like a braying donkey at our offer, that says something. I may not know exactly what it says, but it says something.

He counters with $15,500, saying what is mentioned above, that they don’t have all that much haggling room on that car, especially since it’s already on a pretty good sale (one of only two cars, remember – most other similar ones were around $18,000.) We go up to our desired $14,500, and settle in for what looks to be a long bargaining session. We go back and forth for what seems like two hours but is actually only about 120 minutes, haggling over the financing (our credit isn’t exactly outstanding, but it’s not as bad as I’d thought either; we’ve mostly recovered from my 25-month unemployment financial devastation) as well as the initial cost.

They bring up the fact that the sale price for the vehicle is in and of itself lower than the Kelley Blue Book price, and that we’re getting it for almost a thousand bucks less than that. We bring up the fact that they’re fairly desperate to make a sale, since it’s end of month as well as end of quarter for them, and they’ve already mentioned that they have a quota they need to hit. They bring up the fact that as a Certified Pre-Owned car, it’s still got 50,000 miles or 6 years left on the original warranty. We bring up the fact that since we’re buying in Fresno but live in San Jose, odds are pretty damn high that their dealership won’t have to incur any of the potential repair costs if we should need any work done while it’s under said warranty.

The finance guy comes in several times, backing up the salesman’s comments and begrudgingly lowering the cost down to $15,300, then down to $15,200, then back up to $15,300 (which he swears is a typo, honest), until we finally work out a deal for $15,000 at just a hair under 7% financing. He gives us the CarFax printout when Lucie asks for it, showing it’s a rental return with no accidents or issues.

Now, this is a good deal. We like it. But Lucie thinks we might be able to do better. We’re also just a little afraid to commit to a new long-term debt, since we’ve just about paid off Hawaii and have no major debts otherwise. So, we ask if they can hold that price for us for a while, we’ll go back home and talk about it, and let them know about our decision in a few days, and if we decide to buy we’ll be back down next weekend.

Finally, the finance guys comes in and slaps down a new piece of paper, saying that he’s sick of this back and forth, and he just wants to get this over with. He’s red in the face, and actually does sound pretty grumpy; he’s certainly not as friendly and nice as he was when he came in the first time. The new piece of paper says $14,500, at the agreed-upon financing rate. Kelley Blue Book listing for this vehicle: $18,500. Score!

We sign the papers, and during the finalization process we agree to an upgraded warranty plan (which we were going to get anyway) which brings us full and complete coverage for 100,000 miles from current status (i.e., good for ten years or until 111,090 miles) and we end up with an even lower finance rate, coming in at a mere tad over 6%.

Since she’s nice and big and fast and powerful, and teal in color (like the Sharks!), Lucie names our new vehicle Meg.

Welcome to the family, Meg.


Five Courses in Cupertino.

Talk about serendipity.
It was way too hot in San Jose today and we don’t feel like cooking anything, so we decide to eat dinner on the way home from work. Our first thought is the Benihana’s at Vallco Fashion Park in Cupertino -- we’ve never been there, and think it might be fun just for the cheese factor -- so we head on over. Parking is terrible, there’s a wait for seating, and we can hear several screaming kids in the restaurant, even from outside. After a very short discussion, we say thanks but no thanks and leave.
Lucie suggests the little place that opened where the El Torito used to be – some joint called Alexander’s Steakhouse. We’ve never been there before either, the parking lot isn’t full at all, and it looks like it might be a decent place to eat, so we go there instead.
We walk in the doors and are greeted by a glass wall, behind which sits row upon row of Flintstones-sized racks of beef, dry aging to tender perfection… oh yeah. I like this place already.
It’s still early enough that we’re seated immediately; only two or three other tables are occupied. We peruse the menu and something catches our eye – a little box in the lower left corner that says “Iron Chef Tastings.” Say… we like Iron Chef. And, we like tasting things! Let’s find out more!
Our server Scott explains that the executive chef and co-owner, Jeffrey Stout (who is NOT the same Jeffrey Stout who is an ethicist and teaches religion at Princeton, it turns out) is an adventurous sort, who is willing to create a menu from scratch based on the customers’ wants and desires, and cook everything himself. The dinners range from five to eight courses, depending on how many we want (and how much we want to spend.)
Call it a crazy temporary lapse of sanity, call it one heck of an impulse buy, but that sounds great! We opt for a somewhat low-end price based upon what the server says is charged (some people spend upwards of $600 per person for an eight-course meal centered around foie gras and caviar!), give our food preferences (no dairy, no olives, no duck), and say have at.
Scott goes back to the kitchen, and after a quick consult with the chef comes out for some clarification (light dairy [e.g., butter and touches of cream] would be okay, just no massive cream sauces or soft cheeses) and a very nice surprise – the chef says he can keep our meal under our target price, and still give us real, honest to goodness Kobe beef as the main course. Would that be acceptable?
Would that be acceptable?! Are bears Catholic? Darn straight that’s acceptable!
After one more quick trip to the kitchen, Scott comes back with the finalized menu scribbled on butcher paper (on which we had to sign off, for security purposes or lawsuit assurance or something.) We end up with five courses, plus three appetizers (or “amuses”, as Chef Stout calls them); plus, the chef has decided to throw in an extra course in just for the heck of it. Awesome.
While the chef starts on the meal, Scott brings out a dish of flash-fried shishito peppers, Japanese peppers that have a mild, slightly sweet bell pepper-like taste, to the table as a pre-appetizer appetizer. Lightly salted, the peppers work very well to cleanse the palate between the courses to come. I also order a Tanqueray and tonic for the same purpose.
First appetizer: popcorn crab with wasabi mayonnaise and sriracha -- jumbo lump blue crab, battered and deep fried, served with a light wasabi mayo and a dot of sriracha hot sauce. We feel a little guilty for liking the blue crab more than California’s native Dungeness, but our taste buds tell us to stop whining and keep eating.

Second appetizer: roasted corn blini with smoked salmon, sour cream, and trout roe, paired on the plate with a "green gazpacho" aperitif (vodka and cucumber with some basil and mint muddled in.) The green gazpacho is a little strong on the vodka for Lucie (and I can only finish ¾ of it myself), but the blini is amazing… the blini itself is soft, the smoked salmon is mild and flaky, and the caviar offers tiny little bursts of salty goodness that compliment the fish and contrast with the creaminess of the sour cream.

Third appetizer: gratin of lobster and eggplant -- the topping is actually egg whites and a few other ingredients instead of cheese; a quick run under the salamander browns it and gives it a cheese-like consistency without all the lactose side effects. Nestled on top of the gratin are a small pile of crispy eggplant chips for texture.

Course 1: seared tuna with caviar and uni butter -- also served with shiitake mushroom and some fresh wasabi (real wasabi, not that fake horseradish stuff you get with cheap sushi.) This is the first time I've had seared tuna at a restaurant that wasn't overcooked all the way through; this was perfectly crispy on the bottom and raw on the top half, just like it should be. Paired with this is a small glass of Gewürztraminer grape juice that is sweet without being overpowering, and beats the heck out of anything in a Welch’s bottle. Other than the main course, this is my favorite dish.

Course 1.5: a baby greens salad mixed with crispy prosciutto and champagne vinaigrette, topped with tiger prawns wrapped in phyllo and fried; small dollops of garlic aioli on the phyllo prawns remind me why the words “garlic” and “aioli” make such a wonderful couple. This is Lucie's favorite dish (also not counting the main course.)

Course 2: puff pastry with poached egg and hollandaise sauce, placed over a tempura batter crouton. Chef Stout comes out and shaves some summer truffles over the dish as part of the preparation. Lucie confesses that she thought about stealing some of the truffle to bring home, but ate it all instead. The next time we’re in Umbria, I’ll need to remind myself to buy some truffles for her.

Course 3: arctic char (a type of fish, sort of between salmon and trout) with popcorn (yes, popcorn) and rosemary, topped with creme fraiche and a reduced port wine and truffle sauce. Scott is as bemused as we are about the addition of popcorn to the dish, but works out well, adding some saltiness to the sweetness of the reduction sauce.

"Intermezzo": what they call a "strawberry snow cone" to cleanse the palate -- strawberry sorbet made in-house and topped with crushed ice. Simple, fresh, and oh so very sweet.

And then, our main course. Scott brings out our servings of New York steak, cooked to the perfect medium rare – this is real Wagyu Kobe beef, not the hybrid Kobe-Angus stock they raise here and market as "American Kobe." It’s paired with a morel mushroom and lobster ragout and a crispy artichoke wedge on the side. Moments later, Scott also brings out a complimentary tasting of Bordeaux wine to go with the steak. Our first experience with Kobe beef is amazing… the pieces of meat almost literally melt in our mouths, the richness of flavor is amazing, and there’s not a tough morsel to be found.
I fight the urge to lick my plate clean.
I fight the urge to lick Lucie’s plate clean.
I get the feeling that if I tried to lick her plate, she’d stab me with her steak knife because that’s HER steak juice, damnit.

Dessert is a simple plate of raspberry sorbet with fresh fruit (watermelon, blueberries, and raspberries) over a relish made with diced cucumbers and strawberries mixed with mint. I order a cappuccino to go with it… maybe I’m crazy, but I could swear that the cappuccino is made with Kona coffee.

As with all Alexander's Steakhouse clients, we also receive the whimsical freebie dessert of cotton candy as well -- two flavors, banana and grape. I’ve never had cotton candy that didn't taste like, well, cotton candy before; score one for the gourmet cotton candy machine in the kitchen!

Scott brings us the check (just sign; don’t look… just sign; don’t look…) and offers to take us on a guided tour of the restaurant and the kitchens. We accept, and he gives us a little bit of history of the place (what there is of it, since it only opened in 2005) along with some good commentary on the dry aged beef they serve in addition to the Wagyu as he leads us through the kitchens, through various private dining rooms (unoccupied tonight, since it’s the middle of the week), past four huge wine closets holding over 2,500 bottles of wine, past a humidor where customers can order cigars to smoke on the patio with dessert on summer nights, and past the locked case holding such liquors as the Hennessy Ellipse (only 1000 bottles made, only a dozen or so in the U.S., and costing $500 per shot.)
We think briefly about ordering some Wagyu Kobe steaks from their meat counter and having them vacuum-packed to bring home, but decide not to. Just the fact that we could walk in and order Kobe or dry-aged steaks is amazing enough.
We even get to keep the butcher paper with the scribbled menu on it, as a souvenir of the most expensive – and the tastiest – meal we’ve ever had.


Day 8: The Day We Say "Aloha, And Mahalo For All the Fish"

The morning of our last day here has arrived far too soon. Lucie and I have pretty much decided by now that as far as we're concerned, one of the main reasons we'll be working the other 50 or so weeks out of the year is to come back here for a week.

In only a week, it really does feel like a place I would happily call home.

Now, if only Hawai'i could open up a nice technology park or something, so I could get a job out here, we'd be all set...


We'd already packed up the night before, so we have a couple of hours to kill. We head on down to the Royal Kona's private lagoon and get our rented snorkel gear wet for the first time. While it's not as pristine as hitting the actual open ocean, it's a good start, and it whets our appetite to do the real thing the next time we're here.

We see crabs -- lost of crabs, moving far more quickly than I would have expected -- jumping amongst the rocks, several small fish, and some sea urchins. I take several shots with the underwater camera, hoping I get something decent, and we head back to our room to change for the flight.

Well, okay. First, we stop by the front desk and get a new room keycard, since Lucie thought I had mine with me, and I... thought she had hers with her. Whoops.

Back in our room, as rinse off the salt water, put on our airplane clothes, and head off to the airport, waving a fond farewell to the town that we called home for a week.

At the airport, we check in only to find that our flight has been bumped back an hour (thanks, Aloha Airlines!), so we've got nearly two hours of time to kill before our flight takes off. I do my best to make it exciting, getting pulled aside by TSA security and getting the once-over with metal detectors. Forgot my spare change when I walked through the gate, you see.

However, the increased security measures only give us ten minutes or so of fun, so with over an hour and a half to kill we go to the airport cafeteria for a light breakfast of airline-quality loco moco for me, and a toasted bagel for Lucie. One last guava juice, and we head over to the departure gate for a long wait.

The Kona airport is a quaint setup, with lots of open-air buildings nestled closely together like a series of bungalows. I personally find it somewhat charming, and am a little distressed to hear that some plans are in effect to update the airport, and I imagine them changing it to the typical airport setup consisting of a big nondescript off-white building that lacks any sort of charm. I hope that's not the case.

At any rate, being outside for over an hour gives me a chance to break out the camera and take pictures of several of the birds flitting around, hoping that I might stumble across the mythical nene. I don't.

If the nene exists -- and I'm still doubting that it does -- it's probably hiding deep in the bushes, getting its other bird buddies to come out and get my hopes up.

Our interisland shuttle arrives, and skip over to Maui. The scenery here is just as beautiful as on the big island, and we have a very nice view of Haleakala from the walkway. Unfortunately, because our interisland was bumped back an hour, we don't even have time to take a picture, as we have to rush through the USDA checkpoint and then to the next departure gate, where we arrive just in time to board the plane to Oakland. Hey... thanks, Aloha Airlines.

A somewhat delayed departure once we're boarded, and we arrive back in California about 45 minutes late.

We're home.

We loved the Big Island.

And we're going back, as soon as we can.



Day 7: The Day We See a Volcano Not in a Tommy Lee Jones Movie

Up a little later than usual today, which is not a bad thing. We're a little startled to discover that there is NOT a cruise ship anchored offshore this morning. Man, that just looks weird.

We head south down the Kona coast, past the coffee places and Kealekekaua; all the way to the southern part of the island on our way to Kilauea.

We make a stop at the Punalu'u Bakery ("The southernmost bakery in the USA!") and buy some carbs. Lucie picks up some Hawaiian sweet bread mix (can also be used to make malassadas) and a loaf of coconut flavored sweet bread to bring home; I snatch up three different flavors of mac nut shortbread (guava, banana, and ginger) to share at work; and we eat a breakfast of liliko'i-glazed malassadas. These things are incredibly sweet -- "like Hawaiian Krispy Kremes" is Lucie's comment -- and we lapse into a happy sugar coma. Approximately twelve days later we wake up, clear our heads, and continue on our way.

We look at the sign indicating the road to South Point as we drive past, but we're not allowed to go there. Dumb rental car. Next time we're going to rent a Hummer, and then NOTHING will stop us... except for the shame of being in a Hummer, that is, so that's out. Maybe a Jeep 4x4.

At any rate, we continue on our way, I get a little freaked out when we hit an actual straight section of highway instead of curvy mountain road, and we eventually make it to Volcanoes National Park.

Before we hit the actual volcano, though, we make a side trip to the Volcano Winery and try out some Hawaiian wines. We particularly enjoy the guava wine, and arrange for a few bottles to be shipped back home.

Back on the highway, we finally reach the volcano proper. We drive along the Crater Rim Road, which circles the caldera of everyone's favorite active volcano Kilauea. We see steam vents, where moisture from plants or condensation hits the molten rock and comes up as steam through cracks in the round; old lava flows, where as recent as 25 years ago molten lava had flowed across the roads right around Kilauea's summit; stark, desolate areas of land that have yet to recover from lava flows that destroyed everything they touched; and nene crossing signs.

Lots of nene crossing signs.

Lots of "do not feed the nene" signs, and lots of "caution: young nene nesting area" signs, and lots of "don't pick these berries, because they're for the nene" signs... but we don't see a single nene. Not ONE.
You know why? Because I don't think they exist, that's why! Lucie says she's pretty sure they're real, but I'm not as trusting as she is. I think that many years ago, the Hawaiians all got together and thought it'd be hysterical if they created a fake animal, and they told all of the mainlanders to be careful not to disturb it. They called it a "nene", because calling it the "jakalo'ope" would have been too obvious. Heck -- for all I know, "nene" may be Hawaiian for "big foot".

I'm on to you, Hawaii. You just watch it.

Anyway, we keep driving past the lava flows and nene signs, and approximately thirty seconds later we find ourselves driving through the middle of a rain forest... as in, lush green vines and trees, birds (but not nenes) calling from the foliage, and... rain. We stop to put the top up on our car, and continue on our way. Again, because we don't have a rental car with 4-wheel drive, we're not allowed down the Chain of Craters Road, so we make plans to see where the lava meets the water the next time we're here, and head toward Kailua.

We make a short stop by Punalu'u Black Sand Beach; Lucie dips her toes into the water and pronounces it wet. It looks like rain again, so we get back into our car and continue on our way. It rains heavily the entire way back, so we don't make very many more stops. We wave to the monkeypod tree that Mark Twain planted, but it ignores us as we drive past.

By the time we reach Kailua, it stops raining, so we stop at the Ali'i Market. I pick up another coffee mug from a new coffee company, and we get some more shave ice.

We once again relax on our lanai and watch the sun set... we're definitely going to miss that view.

After it gets dark, we head down to the open-air bar and order some pupu (no giggling!) and some drinks to end the day. Lucie has the BBQ ribs with Hawaiian glaze, and a Midori margarita and a Paradise Found to drink; I opt for the kahlua pig quesadilla, and a Midori margarita, Paradise Found, topless mai tai, and an original mai tai to drink. Don't judge me, I'm on vacation!

After we relax for a bit, we head on upstairs, where we spend the next few hours defying the laws of science by managing to pack everything we'd packed to bring over AND everything we'd bought into four suitcases. I'm not even sure Carl Sagan could explain how we did it, but we did it.

Ready to end the day, and wishing the next day weren't our last one here, we go to bed and listen to the ocean as we drift off to sleep.


Day 6: The Day We Have a Monstro of a Time

(Regarding the title -- the obvious "whale of a time" seemed too... well, obvious.)

We wake up early today, as we have a 6:45am appointment at the Honokohau Harbor for Captain Dan McSweeney's Whale Watch tour. We had some e-mail contact with these folks arranging the tour, and I was very happy with their friendliness and service, so I've got high hopes for the tour itself.

...And boy, does it deliver! The first hour was a little slow, with us cruising around the deep water without much luck. We do see a pair of beaked whales briefly, but they dive beneath the waves for one of their hour-long submersions, and none of us want to wait for that long, so we begin heading back toward shallower water.

At that point, we see some whales surfacing, so we head over to that spot... and find ourselves in the middle of a pod of what had to have been 25-30 pilot whales, surfacing, spouting water, then diving again. We drift silently, amazed, as the whales float all around us. There was a white tip reef shark swimming amongst the whales as well, but it didn't come close enough to the surface to get a good picture.

We were a little late to see any humpbacks , as our tour was on April 28th and the humpbacks finish their nursing cycle and head back up toward Alaska around mid-April. We decide that the next time we come here we'll try and arrange for a trip in March or earlier in April. At any rate, we will definitely be back. Back to Hawaii, and back on a boat with Captain Dan.

After the trip, I pick up a CD of humpback whale song and a ball cap, and Lucie splurges and plunks down money to adopt a pilot whale (all proceeds from whale adoptions go toward McSweeney's "Wild Whale Research Foundation", a charitable nonprofit foundation created to research whales and dolphins and help their environment). She decides to name the pilot whale "Silverfin"... we'll be receiving the official certificate in a few weeks.

(And that, folks, is one of the reasons I love her. One of many.)

After we get back on dry land, we head on up the Queen Ka'ahumanu highway north along the Kohala coast. We see a sign for fresh malassadas, so we stop by a small roadside stand and order some. We have a small wait -- they don't make 'em until you order 'em -- and by the time our order is ready, there's a fairly large number of locals in line behind us. Looks like we stumbled across a secret locals' hot spot.

We attempt to reach the Kekaha Kai state park, but it's an unpaved lava road that doesn't get along very well with our poor rented Sebring, so turn back and continue heading up the coast -- looks like snorkeling will have to wait.

We also try to check out "A' Bay" (officially called Anaeho'omalu Bay, which is why it's shortened to A' Bay), but it's smack dab in the middle of the Waikoloa King's Shops and we're scared off by the pretension. We continue on up the highway.

The next stop is the Mauna Lani Resort (where Les, from the Waipio tour, works.) We attempt to stop by the Holoholokai beach, but by the time I'm able to finish reading the sign with the beach's name, we're a quarter mile past the thing. We move on.

Up next is the Hapuna State Park. The beach and the water here are simply beautiful -- white sands, clear blue waters, and about a hundred thousand people in front of us, trying to reach the water by climbing over the hundred thousand other people lying on the sand. We shrug and head on home, content that at least we were able to visit the second most popular -- and the deadliest -- beach on the Big Island.

We stop by the Kamuela Deli in Kailua for a loco moco plate lunch (I'm really starting to love those things, I gotta tell ya), and then head to the Royal Kona to relax until dinner, when we head down to Don the Beachcomber's restaurant downstairs. I have some tasty poke tuna and a glass of Reisling for an appetizer; Lucie has the macadamia nut crusted mahi mahi she's been wanting since we got here, and I have a pepper crusted ahi.

The chairs aren't as comfy as the ones by the bar, but the view is just as amazing, so we have our drinks for the evening at the restaurant (a mai tai for us both, and a mango daiquiri to share) before heading upstairs.

Earlier in the week, we'd bought a bottle of kukui nut oil for skin lotion, as it's supposed to be good for sunburn, abrasions, psoriasis, eczema, and other skin conditions. I ask my wonderful and unsuspecting wife if the kukui nut oil would have worked on the contusions I'd have gotten if I'd been hit by the coconut during the luau on our first night. With suspicion in her voice, she says possibly, and then asks why.

I reply, "because then I would have had 'kukui, kukui, kukui for coconuts!'"

She just sighs, and I giggle myself to sleep. Sometimes I crack myself up.


Day 5: The Day We Make Another Notch in the Coffee Belt

Day five starts as usual; we wave a good morning to the latest cruise ship in the bay as we head out from the hotel. Along the way, we stop by Snorkel Bob's to rent snorkel gear in case we get around to doing that. Although we have our own snorkel stuff at home, we figured we'd rent gear here since space in our luggage was at a premium, and we'd look weird wearing it as carry-on during the plane trip over.
We have an early afternoon appointment at UCC, so we spend a few hours cruising lazily down the Kona coast to where we'd stopped the coffee plantation tour on Day 2.

Along the way, we stop by Chris' Bakery, which is listed in several guide books as a good place to buy some malassadas, Portuguese doughnuts that are quite popular in Hawaii. And why shouldn't they be -- malassadas are basically beignets made with Hawaiian sweet bread dough, deep fried, and sprinkled with sugar. What's not to love?!

We'd bought a couple of malassadas at the Hilo farmer's market the day before, and while they were tasty we wanted to try some that were freshly made. It was definitely much higher on the yummometer.

From Chris', we cruise on down to the Surfin' Ass coffee company... or maybe it's the Keoki's Donkey Beans coffee company; we're not really sure which... the burlap sack says Keoki's, but the storefront and the coffee mug we bought both say Surfin' Ass. Either way, the espresso smoothie they make for me is -- while not as strong or as heavenly as the Kona Joe's espresso smoothie -- still mighty tasty indeed. Plus, they have soymilk, so Lucie is able to have her first Kona mocha with vanilla soy, and she gives it a definite thumbs up as well.

From there, we walk across the street to a fabric store where I purchase some cool fabric to have a Hawaiian shirt made (we didn't want to spend time running around trying to find a store that had shirts my size), and I find a Hawaiian print bandanna to add to my do-rag collection (all I need to do now is find a matching shirt.)

We drive a bit further down the highway until we get to Greenwell's coffee plantation and living history museum. They'd recently closed down the gift shop (what?!!), but a lady in frontier clothing informs us that we could drive a mile or so down their private road and buy some coffee there. Frankly, we're both getting a weird sort of vibe from the place, and it's almost time for our UCC tour anyway, so we feel it's probably best if we just moved on.

We arrive at UCC (the Ueshima Coffee Company) on schedule, and our friendly host Seichi-san takes our picture and then brings us into the back room where our prize awaits us -- the chance to roast our own coffee beans!

We use a row of small roasting vats that sort of resembled miniature cement mixers over propane flame. The roasters are from the early 1900's, and are still used today for training purposes so people don't waste a lot of beans if they mess up -- each roaster can hold up to a half pound of beans. While our beans are roasting and tumbling in the spinning barrels, Seichi-san talks to us about the history of the place, about how they "crack-u-late" the beans instead of grinding them (since grinding the beans creates additional heat, which can affect the flavor, they essentially chop them instead), and how we could even roast our own coffee beans at home by using a hot-air based popcorn popper. We also get to enjoy a taste test of their coffee, dark and white chocolate covered coffee beans, and a roasted macadamia nut that they also grow and process at this location. All in all, it's a very cool way to spend some time... and we each got some personalized bags of the coffee we'd roasted as souvenirs!

Seriously, as coffee lovers, we majorly geeked out at this. I'm sure I had a big goofy grin for hours afterward.

After our UCC roasting experience, we head back up to Kailua for lunch, and stop by O's Bistro. This place used to be called "Oodles of Noodles", and was listed in a few books as a good place for handmade pasta of all sorts. We enjoy an expensive but very tasty meal of calamari appetizers with a chile-lime sauce, a spicy and exceptional fish sandwich for Lucie, and a plate of spinach and regular fettuccine with a mushroom, pea, and prosciutto cream sauce for me. For dessert, Lucie enjoys a five-flavor pineapple upside down cake (the pineapples for which HAD to have been soaked for at least a week in rum, judging by the taste), and I have a bowl of ancho white chocolate ice cream. A ginger lemonade during the meal also hits the spot, and our taste buds thank us for the treat.

From there, we move to the Hilo Hattie's location in Kona, where I buy a couple CDs of Bruddah Iz (real name Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, one of the most popular Hawaiian singers in recent years and whose music I found and loved earlier this year thanks to iTunes), and Lucie picks up a fridge magnet and some poke mix because I liked the poke tuna so much at the luau.

We briefly consider stopping by Kahalu'u Bay to try out some snorkeling, but decide against it for three reasons: first, because Snorkel Bob says that the sheer popularity of Kahalu'u Bay as a beach spot has all but killed the coral there and thus endangered the ocean life that eats the live coral polyps, and we trust Snorkel Bob to know about what he speaks; second, because we'd just eaten; and thirdly, because Lucie keeps referring to it as "Kthulu'u Bay", and I don't want to run across The Fish That Should Not Be.

Gotta love obscure references. Sorry about that.

So instead of snorkeling today, we decide to relax on the lanai for the rest of the day. We pick up some flower leis (our first actual flower leis since we got here), a big submarine sandwich and several drinks for dinner, and we head on back to the Royal Kona.

We relax on our lanai, reading books and enjoying the sun for a few hours, then eat dinner and enjoy the sunset of our fifth day. Shortly after that, it begins to rain, so we call it a night and come inside.
Even with the rain, we can still hear the ocean crashing as we fall asleep.

Day 4: The Day We Go To Hilo... And, a Handbasket.

Day Four starts... the days are extremely relaxing, but all the same, they seem to be going by far far too quickly. We head up the Mamalahoa highway once again through Waimea, as we had the day before, only this time our goal is to continue past Honoka'a, past Pa'auilo, and all the way to Hilo.

The road along the way is smooth, with only a few winding areas that remind me of Hwy 1. There are several gulches along the highway that are filled with amazingly lush foliage, reminding us that while it's an ocean view the entire way, it's also a rain forest. Fun little-known factoid about the big island that almost everybody knows: the big island contains eleven of the fourteen climate zones -- everything from rain forests to desert lava-strewn desolation to sub-arctic tundra on the top of Mauna Loa. Odds are we won't be witnessing the Mauna Loa snow this trip, but we're certainly enjoying the others.

Once in Hilo, we stop at a farmer's market, marvel at the fruits and veggies we've never heard of before, much less seen (avocados nearly the size of cantaloupes!), buy some jewelry from a vendor there (some for family as gifts, some just for us, and I pick up a koa wood medallion of a turtle that for some reason really strikes me as being way cool) as well as a floral bouquet that had flowers you only see in photographs, and then we have a late breakfast at a nearby cafe.

The plate lunch (of course!) for which I opt is called the Hungry Tigah... four eggs sunny side up, 2 strips of bacon, 2 slices of Portuguese sausage, 2 slices of fried Spam (can't go to Hawai'i witout havin dah Spam, brah), placed on top of a large pile of fried rice, and accompanied with a short stack of pancakes and the beverage of your choice. I choose a root beer float, since any chance of it being considered healthy was out the window anyway.

We waddle (well, I waddle; Lucie can walk normally since she ate a normal-sized meal) over to a gift store where Lucie gets her shop on, buying a woven straw handbag for herself, a carved bamboo kingwhistle for me, and several other small gifts for friends and family.

From there, we head on out to the Mauna Loa macadamia nut factory, where we pose with MacNutty, the Mauna Loa inflatable mascot, view a video tour explaining how the nuts are processed, and raid the gift shop for edibles.

(Just a side note -- almost all of the tour books we read said to turn on Macadamia Nut Road to get to the Mauna Loa factory, but it's actually Macadamia Nut Drive. Lucie thought it was the correct place to turn, but I disagreed and kept on driving until I had to admit I was wrong. Tourists beware!)

Not having an ice chest to keep the chocolates from melting, we make only a short stop at Onekahakaha State Beach to dip our feet into the Pacific on this side of the island before heading on back. One thing about the big island that's different from most of the other islands -- the beaches here are still relatively new, and contain more lava rock than sand dunes. One or two small missteps and you learn to really watch your step afterwards.

Now, nothing against Hilo, but I personally found it to be way too urbanized to be relaxing... people were cutting each other off and speeding, I saw a couple of near-accidents and ensuing arguments, and I could feel myself starting to tense up. I find Kailua-Kona, while more tourist-oriented, also a lot more calming and welcoming. Of course, since we were only there for that one day, I might be judging prematurely. I'll leave it to other tourists to decide for themselves.

On the way back through Waimea, we stop at an authentic German eatery called Edelweiss, run by the very Germanically-named Hans-Peter Hager. Although the critics panned the place when it opened, saying that the heavy food would be too strong for the Hawaiian palate, the restaurant not only has flourished, but is consistently listed as one of the top restaurants on the big island. Reservations are recommended, although Lucie and I get there early enough that they're able to fit us in without waiting. We get our menus, enjoy a bottle of tasty Reisling, and listen to our waitress go through the list of OVER A DOZEN daily specials by memory before placing our order. The menu offers local beef from Parker Ranch right up the road, and the very European menu offers more veal than you can shake a baby cow at, but Lucie and I go for adult-cow-based steaks instead. Our waitress once again impresses us with a list of over a dozen desserts available that day, and we enjoy a cup of coffee before heading back to our hotel.

Once back at the Royal Kona, we finish off the night with some cocktails by the ocean in those crazy comfy chairs (we each have a Malibu and Coke, Lucie supplements it with the trusty piña colada and I with my new friend, the mango daiquiri). Once again relaxed and in the Aloha frame of mind, we head upstairs to our room, where I distress Lucie a little by breaking out the kingwhistle and playing my very first tune on it... the riff from Smoke on the Water.

We fall asleep listening to the ocean crashing against the rocks.


Day 3: The Day We Emulate Kevin Costner

We awake in the morning on Day 3 and have a nice leisurely breakfast at Don the Beachcomber restaurant downstairs. Our appointment for the tour of Waipio Valley isn't until that afternoon, so we decide to go a bit further up the road from Waipio and find the Hawaiian Vanilla Company situated in Pa'auilo.

Yeah... we didn't have any idea where the heck that was either.

However, with only one misstep we find the vanilla plantation... and several dozen tourists who are arriving for a luncheon, which is just about to start as we showed up. Our timing is incredible as always, but while we aren't able to tour the place like we'd planned (it's a very small family-run place and everyone was busy taking care of the lunch reservations), we are able to raid the gift shop there and buy some very nice vanilla-themed presents for ourselves. And maybe one or two things for other people, as well.

On a side note -- it kind of freaked me out how well my clothes for the day matched the vanilla company building.

After that, we have enough time to make a stop in the town of Honoka'a where we stop by a roadside restaurant and I am able to experience my first plate lunch. The loco moco I have is actually quite tasty and -- other than the unfortunate name -- has nothing whatsoever to do with crazy boogers. I hope.

After our plate lunch experience, we head down to the ridiculously small town of Waipio where we hit the art gallery / gift shop / cafeteria while waiting for our tour. One-stop shopping for both tourists as well as locals is a sure sign of a town with only a double-digit population.

We meet our tour guides, a married couple named Les and Renee. Renee's family owns a bunch of the land around the valley, and she and Les have a house down in the valley where they have a taro farm. In addition to being a taro farmer, Les is also a private chef at the Mauna Lani resort, which makes him pretty darn cool in my book.

We get a quick glimpse of the valley from an observation point before heading up several ridiculously steep hills to get to the ATV tour start point -- their 4x4 van seemed to have trouble in some spots.

Once we get comfortable on the ATVs and get our Introduction to ATV Safety lecture ("This makes you go, this makes you slow down, that tree will make you stop real quick") we head off along steep, rocky, and what sure as heck seem like impassable trails on our rides. The views of the valley from right near the cliff edge are amazing.

Along the way, we run into a variety of wild flora and fauna, including Hawaiian ginger flowers; wild macadamia nut trees and coffee trees (!!!); a lone Hawaiian hawk; and some wild pigs, one of which wanders right up the the fence separating it from us and seems either very friendly or very curious, and at any rate very willing to have its picture taken.

Also along the way, we make a stop at a secluded lagoon fed by a small waterfall, and we take a break for a bit so we could play in the water. Back in the old days, this place was reserved for royalty only and off-limits to the regular folk like Lucie and myself, but with Hawaiian royalty being in short supply nowadays, it's open to the visitors who are on the tours (it's still amazingly remote and on private land, so access by the general public is prohibited.)

The Waipio Valley is one of the most undeveloped areas of the big island... only a handful of people live in the valley, and only two of the houses actually have electricity. Access to the valley floor is limited to a one-lane road that's almost a 30% grade, making the drive treacherous even with a 4x4 vehicle, and impossible without one. Several waterfalls cascade from the cliff walls, though one of the larger ones was unfortunately blocked up by the earthquake that happened in October 2006. A federal grant is currently pending to get the waterway unblocked so as to once again allow the water to flow freely -- as it is, the blocked waterway has caused closure of a few businesses in the area, and is causing a hardship on some of the farms that needed the flowing water for irrigation. As if being a taro farmer weren't hard enough.

(Waipio Valley is also where they filmed the ending to Waterworld, in case you didn't get the reference in the title.)

I highly recommend the ATV tour for everyone who goes to the big island... and I also highly recommend Les and Renee as tour guides. These guys were outstandingly friendly, entertaining, and made our trip not only loads of fun but also educational, with Les "talking story" and giving tips on local history and culture as he led us along the paths. These guys made us feel like family, and we can't thank them enough for the experience. Mahalo, you guys.

After the tour ends, we head on back to our hotel, stopping at a deli in Waimea for dinner (another plate dinner for me, this time with chicken katsu and char siu pork; and saimin soup for Lucie).

No drinks by the ocean tonight, as all of the chairs are full. We'll make up for it tomorrow, but for tonight we head off to bed, still awestruck by the beauty of the valley and feeling more and more relaxed by the island's spirit.

I love this place.


Day 2: The Day I'm Unable to Blink

We wake up on our second day, wave to the latest cruise ship anchored out in the bay. and head into Kailua. While Lucie does some shopping, I hit a tiny little internet cafe for breakfast. She gets some jewelry and a cool handpainted sarong, and I have a triple mocha and a breakfast sandwich with double bacon, egg, and cream cheese on toasted Hawaiian sweet bread. Both of us are very happy.

We also pick up our second Hawaiian shave ice (Mountain Dew over shave ice for Lucie, coffee and lychee flavors for me), and head off to the car. Along the way, Lucie turns down some guy asking us if we wanted to buy some herb; the correct reply ("What are you, high?!") doesn't occur to us until about fifteen minutes later.

The Coffee Belt

Stop one: Mountain Thunder. The highest coffee plantation on the big island, Mountain Thunder is also the only purely organic coffee place. We have our first taste test, thoroughly enjoy an explanation of the roasting process, and get my picture taken with a bag of Kona coffee beans.

The next place we hit is Mauka Meadows. There is a display of coffee for sale, but the actual roasting location and gift shop is located quite a ways down the mountain, past a hike through their nice gardens, and even with the tempting offer that they would drive us back up to our car after we buy some stuff, we pass on the idea and head off to the next stop.

In the tiny town of Holualoa, we find the Ferrari Coffee roasting company. We don't know where the actual plantation is, but we have a taste of the coffee in the retail outlet, buy some flavored coffee to give out as gifts, and enjoy our first experience with pidgin English spoken by the very Hawaiian lady behind the counter.

After Ferrari, we proceed to the Blue Sky coffee plantation where we not only have a taste test of several different brews of coffee but also go on a short walk through their garden area where we see several coffee trees, some pineapple trees, apple bananas, papayas, and an actual cacao tree. Blue Sky is one of a handful of places that have begun to grow cacao trees in order to kick-start chocolate as another Hawaiian export business venture. Yum!

After that. it's a short jaunt to the Holualoa Coffee Company, where I not only enjoy a taste test of more coffee (chocolate macadamia nut flavor this time) but we also wander through the place where they process the picked coffee cherries from several other plantations, hull them, dry them, remove the chaff, and return the fully processed raw beans back to the plantations to be roasted -- they have a wall and a half of the burlap sacks from all the different coffee plantations with whom they do business and we take a picture of it all for posterity and move on to the next place and I start to feel a bit of a coffee buzz kicking in.

After Holualoa we head on down to the next stop which was a place called Buddha's Cup which was very hard to find but we found it anyway even though it was hard to find and I had another taste test of their coffee also and I realized I was drinking a lot of coffee but it was all yummy and I bought some coffee from them and another coffee mug and we met a tiny little dog named Pancho who was cute and didn't want to stop being petted and tried to get into our car but we said no and the gal who was there had to herd him away from our car so he wouldn't jump in when we opened the door and then we left and found the next place.

After Buddha's Cup we went to Kona Joe's well we were originally going to get some lunch since by that time we were both hungry but there was a bunch of traffic (even in Hawaii there's a rush hour we found out) so we decided to make one more stop which was a place called Kona Joe's that grows their coffee on trellises like grapes (I like grapes!) but it's not grapes it's coffee and I had an espresso smoothie from the snack bar and also bought a coffee mug and because the total was over $15 I also got a free cup of their iced coffee I ordered a medium sized instead of the large size because I was starting to feel the effects of coffeecoffeeCOFFEE but it was okay and yummy tasty and then we went to the gift shop and bought some of their coffee too (coffee is a funny word) and they were offering free taste tests of their coffee but since I'd already had an espresso smoothie as well as cup of their iced coffee (which were both yummy tasty) I decided not to have any more coffeecoffeeCOFFEE but we bought a bag of their award-winning coffee beans (whole bean medium roast peaberry is the best kind to buy) for home and then we had to leave because we were both hungry by that time but I think I already said that and then we drove though the town to find some place to eat but most places were closed because for some reason a lot of places are closed between 1:30 and 5 in the smaller towns because they don't cater to tourists as much in the small towns but we finally found a place that was open and we sat down and had a late lunch and I was able to eat some food which helped since I was a little wired from having so many taste tests and the espresso smoothie yummy tasty from Kona Joe's and also the iced coffee yummy tasty coffeecoffeeCOFFEE

After lunch, I feel much better.
We continue to drive South down the Kona coast, and wander down to Kealakekua Bay. On the way, we notice a few other coffee places; however, since it's already past 5 (and since my heart rate is still somewhere in the 300-400 beats per minute range), we opt to leave them for another day.
We head back to our hotel, and once again enjoy drinks by the ocean to end out the day. Lucie opts for a blue Hawaiian, and I have the obligatory mai tai, as well as a strawberry daiquiri... and my first mango daiquiri, which I immediately declare to be one of the Best Drinks Ever.
Sated and happy, we retire for the day, and I hope I can actually fall asleep.