S. Africa Games Drives

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Clambering into our open Land Rover, we came to South Africa to see the famous Big Five—elephants, rhinos, buffalo, lions and leopards–with our driver, JP, and our tracker, Andres. During the game drive, Andres sits in the raised seat dangling out in front of the Land Rover, looking out into the bush and constantly communicating with the driver.

Passing herds of impala, nyala and kudu on both sides of us, we almost immediately came upon a rhino clomping his way to a watering hole where he flopped into the cooling mud.  JP maneuvered the Land Rover so that we could get closer. We watched our rhino relax, stretch, get up and flop down again for about 15 minutes.

 

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Moments later they found us a family of elephants munching on shrubbery. When you are in the presence of these great animals, everything feels leisurely, them, us, a respectful few yards between us.

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When at last we left our elephants, a warthog family bounced through the bush alongside of us. Who knew warthogs were so jaunty?  And that’s when we came upon our first family of giraffes. Their tall bodies are hidden in the trees but when you settle in and really look, you see their long slim legs moving down among the tree trunks and then you see their spotted heads bobbing improbably above the treetops.

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Occasionally a couple would emerge into the open and we could enjoy their whole spotted figures, necks crossing necks as they reached for the juiciest leaves.

One morning just after sunrise, we came upon a sleeping pair of rhinos, startling them which in turn startled us.

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They begrudgingly got to their feet to check us out, then decided we weren’t very interesting and plopped back down, snuggling together again. Yet we still hadn’t seen a lion or a leopard. They are elusive, shy and well-camouflaged, and JP and Andres were determined to track one for us. Now and then Andres asked JP to stop, they both got out and looked at footprints, talking softly to each other.

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Then we’d set off in a new direction. Finally we drove right off the road. Our beast of a Land Rover crashed over fallen logs, shrubs and small trees, deeper and deeper into the brush. They had heard the laughter and yips of hyenas nearby, the sounds of a kill stolen from a leopard. Soon we passed a tree filled with patient vultures and then the victorious hyenas themselves. We barreled deeper into the wilderness.

At last Andres spotted him, an adolescent male leopard ambling through the tall grass.

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JP maneuvered our Land Rover closer to him and from 10 feet away we watched our leopard discover a warthog hole. He crept down into it until nothing but his long spotted tail was left showing. Luckily for the warthogs but sadly for our leopard, he came back out empty-jawed, shook the dirt off his face and walked even closer to us.

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I could barely breathe! We were awe-hushed and thrilled…and he hardly registered our presence. This is one of the reasons I suggest that you safari on a private game reserve. The trackers and drivers are respectful of the animals and never overwhelm them with the human presence.  The reserve only allows two Land Rovers to be at any animal sighting at a time. The animals see our Land Rover as just another huge creature and as long as we stay seated in the car, they are not intimidated, not fearful…and they feel comfortable enough to approach surprisingly close.

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We watched as the leopard sauntered curiously between our two Land Rovers, then he slowly walked off…where he was joined by his mother!

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They greeted each other and we followed this little leopard family for a long while as they walked beside each other in the sun, finally disappearing deeper into the bush. Nothing I have ever done has struck me with such awe and reverence as being in the presence of all these animals, enjoying their world in the bush together.  If you dream of a safari, don’t put it off. Call me and let’s make that dream come true. Lisa Kallen 925-837-8742 ext 18. This adventure is life-changing!

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Italy Through the Artist’s Eye

I dream of Italy…the serene, winding canals of Venice, the cradle of Renaissance art in Florence, emerald hillsides of Tuscany…oh, and the food, the wine! My sister lives in Italy so I have an excuse to visit often. This month I enjoyed my first visit to Cinque Terre, five seaside villages in Tuscany famed for their kaleidoscope of homes clambering up cliffsides, adorning sleepy harbors.

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We stayed in a spacious apartment in Vernazza, overlooking the piazza with its pastel bell tower and striped umbrellas shading diners. By day, the town bustled with hikers and tourists from around the world, exploring the shops, the cafes, the castle and tower. Small boys played soccer and young people laughed into the evening after their day of hiking the crest trail that connects these towns for hiking enthusiassts.

The five towns that comprise the Cinque Terre stretch out along a small mountain range, dangling over the sea like charms on a bracelet. You can explore the Cinque Terre by train, by boat or by walking between them along a path through the mountains. I recommend exploring the Cinque Terre as many ways as you can because these 5 villages deserve being seen from every angle. Traveling by train puts you right at the heart of each town and from there you can wind your way through the narrow streets, up the staircases among quiet alleys that lead to surprising views, either of the town from a new angle or of the Ligurian Sea.CT7

But don’t pass up the chance to take the ferry which runs frequently between 4 of the 5 villages and allows you to skirt along the vine-covered cliffs and experience the Cinque Terre as you approach from the sea. There you will take the full measure of their beauty and come to appreciate the engineering it took to build homes up along those cliffsides, the houses like clusters of grapes cascading down the rock face.

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I traveled with my mother, an artist, who wanted to capture the workaday side of these towns… as if the taffy-colored homes weathering in the sun weren’t picturesque enough. We photographed the residents chatting in the piazza or taking their daily “passeggiata” to enjoy the evening cool with a leisurely walk, photos my mother would use to compose her paintings back at home. We photographed the small worn fishing boats bobbing in the harbor, rainbows of disrepair that captured mom’s interest. I couldn’t resist taking pictures of our food as well.

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The regional cuisine of the Cinque Terre includes seafood served every way imaginable, fresh and caught that morning. Mussels, sardines, sea bream and squid, the Italians certainly know how to display the abundance of the sea, draping their prawns over delicate risottos, delivering an aromatic fish soup in a gargantuan bowl for the family to ooh and ahh over and then devour. The drama! The local wines are soft and complicated and easy on the wallet. And the cheeses…my favorite was a Pecorino di Fossa, a local specialty buried underground to ripen for two years before savoring.

With its combination of dramatic seascapes, candy-colored homes nestled into the crannies of the mountains, breezy harbors, and always, the beautiful Italians, the Cinque Terre have been charming travelers for years. I recommend a visit on your next adventure in La Bella Italia.

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OUR PRIVATE CARIBBEAN

Living in California, it’s easy to overlook the Caribbean as a destination for sun, adventure and glorious beaches.  But you won’t do that again after enjoying a WindStar cruise through the Caribbean.  My friend and I boarded our five-masted sailing yacht, the Wind Surf carrying just 270 guests, after an easy flight into St. Maarten. We were greeted with champagne and hors d’oeuvres, eager to embark on our “Yachtsman’s Caribbean” itinerary through the British Virgin Islands.

Our first port of call was Falmouth Harbour on Antigua. We had signed up for a shore excursion, Ziplining through the Canopy, which turned out to be an exhilarating start to our vacation. We zoomed over 12 ziplines (feeling quite safe the entire time thanks to their team of expert guides), followed by an obstacle course through the lush treetops. Probably the best excursion I have ever taken!

What better way to relax from that excitement than toes in the sand.

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The second day, we enjoyed a full day at sea starting with a stretching class then yoga in the morning, followed by a galley tour and a cooking demo, Spiced Chocolate Mousse. Our captain announced mid-day that we were under power of only the sails…and we were soon accompanied by a small pod of Minke whales who surfed alongside of us for about an hour. After that thrill, drinks with new friends and it was time to watch our second dramatic sunset.

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WindStar has an open-bridge policy for those of us fascinated by all things nautical. We enjoyed chatting with the captain and first officer to learn more about our route, about instrumentation, the workings of the sails. We even watched as one of the crew used a sextant to confirm our course at sunset using just two stars and the horizon.

We came ashore next morning at Soper’s Hole on the tip of Tortola, a tiny village awash in pinks and turquoise and oranges with gingerbread-trimmed shops. WS Sopers Hole.jpg

This was where we discovered our first “Painkiller,” a rum and coconut drink famous in the British Virgin Islands. We snorkeled among sea caves and along a reef with sea turtles, rays, barracuda and an abundance of fish in every pattern. That afternoon, back on the Wind Surf, we played with the water toys at the back of the ship’s Sports Marina—kayaks and stand-up paddleboards, rafts and a huge water trampoline–until close to sunset.

Tiny Jost Van Dyke is where we came ashore in the evening to a moonlit port and spent hours dancing at Foxy’s Bar, again Painkillers in hand. Next morning we crested a hill and looked down upon the most vibrant turquoise water I have ever seen. WS White Bay

This was White Bay, a secluded beach where we spent the afternoon snorkeling, just our guests and a few catamarans and sailboats.

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Not another cruise ship in sight for days. Capped off by a visit to the famous Soggy Dollar Bar for more Painkillers, we set sail that night for Virgin Gorda. And what a surprise Virgin Gorda was.

First stop was Devil’s Bay, a small, turquoise cove nestled among huge, dramatic granite boulders.

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After snorkeling, we went pseudo-spelunking through a vast field of those looming rocks, clambering over them, under them, around them, splashing in hidden shadowy pools—never seen anything like it in the Caribbean before.

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We ended up at secluded Fischer’s Cove where our fabulous WindStar crew had set up a sprawling Beach BBQ for us. We feasted and danced, snorkeled and waterskied and kayaked all afternoon.

Final stop was gorgeous St. Bart’s, a playground of mega-yachts, high-end shopping and beaches and a fascinating place to people-watch.

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What makes WindStar cruises so unique is the perfect balance of small ships (150 – 300 guests), luxurious staterooms and lounges, fine dining (from local specialties to classic French cuisine), stellar excursions, attentive service…and those intimate, uncrowded ports of call. The perfect combination for your next cruise to the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, French Polynesia, Asia, even Iceland. You’ll never go back to a big ship again!

 

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Into the Wilds of Scotland

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From books and movies, I had always imagined what Scotland would look like and our “Country Roads of Scotland” escorted tour with Insight Vacations was the perfect way to experience the lush green heart of this magical land. Ten blissful days… and now Scotland feels like home.

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After touring lively Edinburgh for two sunny days we headed north, away from the crowds and up into the Highlands. Going off the beaten track delivered us right into the Scotland of my dreams.

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The rugged landscape, the “dragon’s breath” that draped the mountaintops just before a rain, the wilderness of green tufted vales, the glens and straths dotted with woolly sheep, the lochs and rivers on the way to the Isle of Skye…and all those waterfalls seeping out of every cranny in the hillsides and mountains! Here in California we are so parched by drought that I had forgotten how lush a land can be.

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The Scottish people are so dear, so friendly, jovial and welcoming…and those accents, lilting and rugged like their country. Our Tour Director, Michael, was the perfect combination of doting shepherd and darling host. Meticulously detail oriented in his care for us, he was a font of encyclopedic knowledge of the Scots and their history and a very funny storyteller to boot. As he shared with us ancient Scottish history and stories of clan battles and royal intrigue, he would now and again slip seamlessly into a tall tale of his own escapades, catching us up in breathless attention until the punch line.

 

Scotland CullodenMichaels’s clear love of this country and its people shone through as he encouraged us to experience the enchantment and mythology of the Highlands at some very moving locations. Charming us with the lore of Loch Ness and its famed water horse, hearkening back to the heartbreak at Culloden Moor, sharing the mystical power of the Druid Temples, Michael often brought us to tears, especially those of us who have had a “bit of the sadness” come into our lives. And for anyone who is a fan of the “Outlander” time-travel books, this particular tour is a must, as we visited all things Clan Fraser. Many of us clung to the standing stones in hopes of being transported ourselves!

 

So much was included in our Insight Scotland Altnaharra1Vacation: our accommodations, daily breakfasts and most dinners, tours each day, plus a few surprise “flourishes”– complimentary stops along the way for homemade shortbread, Orkney ice cream, tea and cakes and clotted cream.

 

One favorite afternoon included a slice-of-life moment when we visited a sheepdog trainer on his Highland farm. The proud sheep farmer whistled and whooped to his dogs who were eager to show off how they keep those woolly beasts in line.

Scotland SheepdogsAfter trying our hands at sheep shearing and feeding the lambs, we couldn’t resist cuddling a few puppies from a recent litter. Our visit felt like such a privilege as, sadly, this ancient way of life is disappearing in
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Scotland Mey1 (2)In addition to the wild Scottish countryside and our very talented Tour Director, another highlight of this Insight Vacation was our fellow adventurers. We got to know everyone–their stories, their passions–over meals, while touring, and while exploring together in the evenings. Insight Vacations sets up so many meals together as well as the seating rotation on our coach so that we were always cozying up to someone new in those first early days. By the end of this adventure we had truly all become good friends and I look forward to traveling with many of them in the future.

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For those travelers considering an escorted tour, an Insight Vacation offers the perfect balance of activities and free time…free time to explore tiny towns late into the long summer hours of daylight, to hike the castle-topped hills, to hunt down local pubs for whiskey and rousing music, to get up early (sometimes) for a quick walk-around in the bright, emerald dawn. From that dawn to late dusk, we were steeped every day in the Scotland I had hoped to see—dramatic, soulful, mystical.  Slainte va!

 

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Romance of the Star Clipper Tall Ship

From the moment we arrived at the pier in sunny St. Maarten, we knew our adventure cSCSails3 (2)ruise would be something out of the ordinary. Something timeless, something dramatic, something…like nothing we’ve ever experienced on a cruise before. The Star Clipper is a true tall-ship sailing vessel that makes her way over the seas powered by the wind for most of her journey. The wind! Think Christopher Columbus, think Magellan, think quiet sails billowing in the night breeze under a sprinkling of stars.

Why take a break from traditional cruise lines and sail instead on a tall ship with Star Clippers? So many reasons…A Star Clippers tall ship is an intimate luxury yacht (either 170 guests or 227 guests, depending on the ship) and offers unusual itineraries to small ports far from the mega ships and their crowds of thousands.

And for sailboat enthusiasts, the Star Clipper feels like home. She is sleek and luxurious with her dark, shining mahogany, her gleaming brass fittings and her four looming masts anxious to set sail. Most of the passengers of a Star Clippers voyage are either sailors and boat owners or, like me, just love all things related to sailing. Day or night, we could watch the goings-on up on the bridge, chat with the captain, peruse the charts, duck SCCrowsNest1under lines to winches, listening to commands called fore to aft.

This is adventure cruising at its best, with a crow’s nest to climb and bowsprit netting to stretch out on in the sun.

We started making friends right away with fellow passengers from around the world. Germans, French, Italians and Belgians mingled with Americans in a camaraderie bred of our mutual love of an adventure at sea. A glass of champagne in hand, we explored the decks that would be our home for the next seven days and nights.

Ahh, then it was time to set sail. The “Sail Away” was truly the highlight of every evening, a dramatic coda to the day as the crew hoisted the sails accompanied by Vangelis’ dramatic “1492: Conquest of Paradise.”  Music swelled as the sails filled and we pulled away from port.

Our itinerary included six intimate ports-of-call among the Caribbean’s Leeward Islands. SCGuadeloupe1Nevis, Domenica, Guadeloupe, Ile des Saintes, Antigua and St. Barthélemy welcomed us to their tiny villages and private beaches. At each destination we had the choice of several shore excursions. And on days when we were not enjoying whale watching, river tubing, submarine rides, a regatta race or historical tours, we played on our own secluded beaches. For those of us who love to laze on the sand and play in the surf, we were tendered ashore to our beach. Then the Sports Team followed with zodiacs filled with kayaks, sailboats, paddleboards and waterskis for us to enjoy throughout the day. The water was that perfect temperature, refreshing yet warm enough to stay in and play in for hours.

SCRoyalClipperRaceStar Clippers has three tall ships in her fleet and one day, two of these ships happened to be heading to the same port…so we raced! A dark-clouded squall blew up just in SCSails1time, we leaned hard into the wind and edged past our big sister, the Royal Clipper–what a sight!

After each day on land, we returned to the Star Clipper for happy hour in the Tropical Bar (as if every hour wasn’t already happy!). At dinner, open seating and casual, we shared stories with new friends. Our meals were prepared to the deliciously exacting standards of the acclaimed Chaine des Rotisseurs, featuring the kind of menu where you really wish you could try one of everything. Sometimes we did!

After dinner the guests and crew joined together to create our own nightly entertainment. The first night, a fashion show; the second night, wooden “frog” races and ridiculous antics; our talent show (I use “talent” generously) featured songs and skits with crew and brave guests; the trivia contest was raucous fun; a local steel drum band jumped aboard next; and we spent our last evening together dancing and limboing into the night.

SCNightSailsAnd at the end of each exhilarating day, those of us most enthralled by the sailing life would spend two or three hours up on the deck before retiring. We read, we dreamed, we relaxed and took a slow deep breath. We were savoring the romance of a bygone age of clipper ships, listening to the whispering sails and rush of the sea in the still, dark night.

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Aegean Dreams

On our first Crystal Cruise, my friend and I chose a round-trip Istanbul itinerary that carried us through the Greek Islands on the elegant Crystal Serenity, a sanctuary of gracious style, including ports of call that dreams are made of—Santorini, Mykonos and Istanbul.

Santorini is a circular archipelago, island remnants of a collapsed caldera bathing in the Aegean Sea. Visiting Santorini requires scaling the cliffside up to the bustling town of Fira by your choice of donkey or funicular. We chose the funicular and clambered into the cable car with an Italian family, singing “Funiculi Funicula” all the way to the top. The rewards at the top include views of islands jutting out dark against deep Aegean blue. Oh, and wonderful shopping. Fira is a marketplace brimming with silver and leather, food stands and taverns, most opening onto those dramatic views.

But I dreamt of getting lost in the whites and blues of a quieter Santorini. So we hopped a local bus to visit Oia (pronounced EE-ah), a nearby village with fewer tourists–and where my travel dreams came true.

Oia is a bright maze of white geometrically-shaped homes and shops dotted by those iconic blue domes. Riots of hot pink bougainvillea exploded over pergolas and laced between the storefronts. From the main pedestrian street—narrow and peopled with Europe’s most cosmopolitan couples—we could look down past the steep bleached labyrinth of homes hugging the cliffside all the way down to the water. As we ambled from shop to shop, each offered more unusual artistic wares than the last. So many finds, so much to bring home! We escaped the mid-day sun to lunch on succulent prawns, then lingered in this charming village not wanting to miss a single shop, a single artisan–ceramics, jewelry, textiles, sculptures. As the sun began to set, we longed to stay on in the cool of the lengthening shadows until the very last tender zipped us back to the Crystal Serenity, anchored in the bay.

At dusk we sailed away from sparkling Santorini, a shimmering necklace draped atop the cliffs. What could possibly rival our Santorini, our Oia? When we awoke the next morning we found out. Mykonos!

The Old Port of Mykonos is presided over by five stout, thatched windmills worn by the sea-winds. This enclave of Mykonos was once a lively trading center and, so, a favorite target of pirates. Waterfront homes featured basements with windows just above sea level…and cannons! The intrepid inhabitants regularly had to fire their family’s cannon to fend off invaders.

Wander off the waterfront and you enter what is lovingly called Little Venice, a warren of bone-white alleyways studded with colored doors, stairways topped with shutters in shocks of reds and blues. Shopping here is a joyful romp through a labyrinth of crafts and trinkets. After our shopping lists were complete, we visited a Greek Orthodox monastery, its plain exterior belying the ornate golden iconography inside. A quick swim and drink at a local beach and the sun was setting on another gem of a day. We left Mykonos behind for a full day of sailing, headed for our last stop, Istanbul.

We sailed into Istanbul at two in the morning. Party boats were anchored off our portside and dance music played for the revelers, revealing Istanbul to be a lively destination for millennials.

A few hours later the parties had died down and a watery quiet came to rest on the bay. The sun still far from rising, I looked from our balcony out over the silent shoreline with  Istanbul’s mosques and minarets sparkling in the darkness. Knowing that each mosque has its own muezzin who calls worshippers to prayer with warbling incantation, I wondered if a city this large has one main muezzin who sings to his city or if each muezzin chants his own call to prayer. Within minutes I found out. From every corner of this sleeping city muezzins sang out the day’s first call to prayer, deep bass voices underpinning the higher warbling tenors, rising, falling in a glorious holy cacophony. Istanbul’s Blue Mosque and colorful spice market punctuated our adventure in true Turkish style. Thank you, Crystal, for the cruise of a lifetime.

Lisa Kallen, Alamo World Travel

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The Lure of the Big Island

To those of us who have lived on the East Coast, Hawaii has always been an exotic destination that promises fragrant breezes and endless beaches.  Now that I am a California girl, Hawaii has been that much easier to get to–a weekend  jaunt to Oahu,  a hiking adventure on Kauai, a romantic getaway to Maui.

And there is the Big Island, inescapably huge and yet somehow bypassed. So this year, when my 21-year-old twins and I had endured an unusually challenging winter, I thought of the Big Island as a respite, a cure for what ails us.

From the moment we flew over from Maui, we could tell this island was different. Sprawling Mauna Loa, the world’s largest active volcano, and her lush green flanks gave way to the dry, near-barren leeward side as we dipped down into Kona. Centuries of lava flows have hardened into fields of chocolate-brown and ash-black rock, swirled and cracked and starkly beautiful. The road up the coast to our hotel on Hapuna Beach cut through miles of these old lava fields, tufted with shrubs trying to take root.

After driving north about 30 minutes, we turned away from the barren lava flows into the luxurious and garden-wrapped Hapuna Beach Prince Resort. The Prince hugs an intimate turquoise cove of bright sand and calm waves. Soothing breezes, birdsong and traditional Hawaiian music enwrapped us wherever we wandered on the resort. Every room enjoys an ocean view, service was beyond friendly, food was tropically-inspired and our mid-May stay felt uncrowded, unhurried.

Between lounging on the pristine beach and snorkeling nearby, we quickly relaxed into a Hawaiian state of mind and body. But we came to the Big Island for more than relaxation. We needed to see that huge volcano. Knowing that a trip from Hapuna Beach down to the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park was a three hour drive, we stopped along the way at Honaunau Bay, a prime snorkeling spot with an expansive reef. We snorkeled our way among the contours of the reef and its colorful population of fish until we came upon a lazy manta ray vacuuming a path along the bottom. Fifteen minutes later we pulled ourselves away from watching the manta and ended up hovering near a small family of green sea turtles, or honu, before we ended that day’s snorkeling.

We had timed our drive for a late-afternoon arrival at the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and headed to the Jagger Museum 4000 feet up the side of Mauna Loa. The Jagger Museum features scientific and historic exhibits for all ages and is the staging area for observing the volcano’s activity at night. From dusk until the full dark of evening, light emanated from deep inside the crater changing from a soft glow at first to a deep, bright orange that reflected up onto the evening fog. We drove back into the night thankful to Mauna Loa for sharing her dramatic brilliance with us.

The other activity we were eager to try for the first time was ziplining, an adventure where you fly along metal “ropes” in a zigzag over rainforest and waterfalls. We chose a 9-line adventure over the Umauma River and Falls. Helmeted and harnessed at the top of the first tower, that first step is a bit daunting…until you take it. Then all we felt was the brush of the wind on our skin, hearing the roar of the falls below as we cut between mango trees over cow pastures and guava orchards, over waterfalls and lava tubes. We screamed all the way down to the first landing where some magical mechanism slowed our speed easily and we were caught in the capable hands of our guides who unhooked us and cheered us on. At the end of each individual zip line, as we waited for our fellow zippers to have their ride, we enjoyed stunning views of the falls from decks set upon cliffs along the river chasm.

In just under two hours the Big Island showed us some of the secrets she only used to reveal to intrepid hikers. But ziplining lets us “soft adventurers” in on those secrets too. Mahalo, Hawaii, we will be back.

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