‘Akaka Falls State Park

If you ever find yourself on the Big Island, ‘Akaka Falls State Park is definitely worth a visit! ‘Akaka Falls is one of the most beautiful waterfalls on Hawaii, and it is also one of the most accessible. Typically, waterfalls of this grandeur can only be seen after long, arduous hikes, or very expensive helicopter tours. But to reach ‘Akaka Falls, there is an easy, 0.4 mile loop footpath that will get you in and out in no time. The cost to enter the park is $5 per person. We stopped at this state park prior to visiting Volcanoes National Park, and it was a nice add-on to our outing for the day.

The self-guided path will actually take you to scenic points overlooking TWO waterfalls! ‘Akaka Falls plunges 442 feet into a gorge below. Kahuna Falls is almost as tall, but unfortunately the view of that waterfall is partially obstructed. So while we did get to see Kahuna Falls, I didn’t even bother taking a picture.

The Ground is Lava! – Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Do you remember the childhood game where we pretended the floor was lava? Of course you do; it was the best! Jumping from the coffee table to the couch, trying your best not to fall into the “fiery pit” below. Have today’s kids even heard of this game? Probably not. In our digitally dominated world, this game may be obsolete. Nonetheless, it was the inspiration for the following photos. Because in the Kīlauea Caldera, the ground is actually lava!

But in order to get down to the Kīlauea Caldera, we first had to hike the Halema‘uma‘u Trail. The trail is about 0.8 miles downhill through lush rainforest. (Keep in mind the return hike will be all uphill!)

Photo by NPS

When the trail ends and you enter the caldera, it’s otherworldly. Nothing but a vast expanse of black lava rock and you are actually standing in the caldera of a very active volcano. So active in fact, Kīlauea ranks among the world’s most active volcanoes and may even top the list. Since 1952, Kīlauea has erupted 34 times. Coincidentally, when we first visited Hawai’i in 2018, Kīlauea was actively erupting and the national park was closed to visitors.

If you don’t have time for the hike, you can also view the caldera from above. Crater Rim Drive offers observation points right off the road where you can view the volcano’s broad, shallow depression measuring nearly 3 miles long and 2 miles wide.

Note: Before you visit, make sure to check the NPS website for updates on current closures. Several parts of the park were still closed during our most recent visit.

Sunset Paddle Tour – Ka Napoo Ana O Hoe

We went back to Puako Bay for an evening adventure with LightSUP Hawaii. We had reservations for the Signature Sunset Tour, which combines the views of snorkeling with the experience of paddle boarding…in the dark! 😱 I’m not going to lie peeps…I had some pretty intense anxiety about this activity. I was terrified to fall into the water at night, mostly because that seems to be when sharks are likely hunting, but also because I didn’t want to step on any of the sea urchins (mentioned in my earlier post). But seriously, it was mostly the shark thing. 🦈

The tour begins with dinner on the beach as you watch the sunset.

Sunset on Puako Bay

After dinner, Kelly and her crew teach us newbies the basics of paddle boarding and give us our safety briefing. She advises us not to stand up on the paddle boards until we are given the thumbs up that the water is deep enough, so that if you do fall off there won’t be a chance of landing on the giant sea urchins.

After the sun has set, its time to light up the paddle boards! Each paddle board has a large viewing window like a glass bottom boat. The viewing window has under-mounted lights; 4500 lumens lighting up the reef below you. The lights allow you to see what is swimming below, but the lights are also designed to attract plankton, which in turn will attract more sea life for viewing.

Rob stands up as soon as he is given the thumbs up. I decided to keep my arse firmly planted on the paddle board. 🐔

Ella shared a paddle board with Rob – which allowed her to lay down right in front of the viewing window. Best seat in the house! We saw lots of minnows and needle fish mostly. But towards the very end of the tour I did see a puffer fish which was pretty cool.

Notes – Kelly and her crew were AMAZING! They definitely tailor this experience to a wide range of skill levels, so it doesn’t matter if you are an experienced paddle boarder, or a first-timer like me. Additionally, dinner and sunset on the beach was both tasty and beautiful! This was definitely a unique experience and I am glad that we tried it. However, I definitely expected to see a wider variety of sea life, so that was a bit disappointing. But, I likely missed quite a lot of what was going on below while I was so focused on navigating the paddle board. Finally, even though the water was very calm, I was beginning to feel a tinge of motion sickness coming on. The slight water movement combined with looking down through the window was not a good mixture for me since I am very prone to getting sea sick. It was similar to how I feel when I try to read in a car. So I found myself not looking through the window continuously so as to ease those side effects.

Puako Bay Tide Pools

One of the very first things we did on the Big Island, was visit Puako Bay during low tide. There isn’t much sand there, but the natural formations in the lava rock create amazing tide pools! During low tide, small pools dot the entire coastline and it is a great place to explore and observe small sea creatures throughout an extensive reef. We saw a ton of sea urchins and they were the biggest sea urchins I had ever seen! The creature in the top right photo is a sea cucumber. I just learned that sea cucumbers excrete a toxic venom and can cause permanent blindness in humans if it gets in your eyes! Great…adding more to the list of things I’m terrified of in the ocean. 🤦🏼‍♀️

Ella had had enough exploring and she was ready to leave because she had fallen down a couple times. The tide pool terrain was a bit tricky to navigate. Particularly when there was the possibility of slipping and landing on giant sea urchins!

As Rob and Ella were heading back to the access point we entered from, I spotted a sea turtle! He was enjoying a morning snack and I thoroughly enjoyed watching him nibble.

And then I realized there were SO many more turtles in nearby tide pools. It was definitely the highlight of this little adventure!

If you are ever in this area of the Big Island, I would definitely recommend this as a fun excursion. There are six separate access points to this stretch of beach. And you’ll need sturdy shoes to navigate around the lava rock.

Oops! Five Years Later…

Well, as the saying goes, “Time flies when you are having fun!” I can’t believe it has been more than five years since my last blog post. I can assure you it is not due to a lack of traveling! We have been on a ton of trips since I posted about our trip to India. Our little girl just turned 7 and she already has 10 countries stamped in her passport. The travel bug is still strong in our family. But I guess the writing bug needed a good, long break on my end.

Regardless, I am here now! And I’m hoping to fill you in on highlights from our most recent trip to Hawaii (July 2021). During my hiatus, we made our first voyage to Hawaii, back in 2018. Hopefully, at some point, I can go back and post about all of the amazing places we’ve been these last few years. But for now, I am just going to concentrate on our most recent trip. So stay tuned to hear more about that!

Are We Still in India?

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Beach Bum
The first half of our vacation in India had us hustling and bustling to see and do so many things. I’m glad we seized the opportunity to see so many new things, but quite frankly, it was exhausting. Luckily, I had the foresight to factor in some relaxation time as well. We left the crowded streets of Delhi behind and flew south to spend 5 glorious nights in Goa. It was like we were transported into another country! Goa was so different from the India we had grown accustomed to. We took a taxi from the airport to Candolim Beach and for the first time since we had arrived in India, the incessant horn honking had finally ceased! The air pollution was no longer hovering around us and we began to remember what fresh air tasted like! We knew immediately that we were going to enjoy our time in Goa!

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Cheers!
What made our stay in Goa even more enjoyable was that our friends, Brie and Raj, were able to join us for 3 of those nights. We shared a fabulous villa in North Goa that was walking distance to the beach and we all enjoyed our first experience of the Arabian Sea. The adults sipped on cocktails before noon and the kids loved playing in the sand.

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If cocktails before noon aren’t relaxing enough for you, how about a 20 minute beach-side massage for $5? And…if you are really lucky, your toddler might work your lower body at no extra cost!

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The masseuse and the apprentice
Goa was the perfect destination for the adults to relax and for the kids to be kids. The food was delicious and the sunsets were perfect.

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Long walks on the beach with Daddy
And most importantly, Ella’s love for Anya & Elia grew even stronger…

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Holding hands with her idol, Anya
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Group hug
 

The Bears that Danced into My Heart

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Photo courtesy of Wildlife SOS

Before returning to Delhi, the last stop on our Golden Triangle road trip was the Agra Bear Rescue Facility. I had learned about this rescue organization and immediately knew I had to fit this into our itinerary. The Agra Bear Rescue Facility, managed by Wildlife SOS, is home to sloth bears that were rescued from captivity by the Kalandar tribe of India. For generations, the Kalandar people have been “training” (read: torturing) these bears to dance and then exploiting the “dancing bears” for money. Unfortunately, India has a very long history of animal exploitation, and this is by far the worst example that I am aware of. 
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Photo courtesy of Wildlife SOS

Poachers would kill a mother sloth bear after she left her den to forage for food. They would then capture and sell the cubs to the Kalandar people. What happened next was extremely barbaric, as they pierced the cub’s muzzle with a hot iron stake, as well as removed the canine teeth, all without any anesthetic. They looped rope through the freshly pierced hole in the cub’s muzzle and it was used as a make-shift bridle to control the cub’s head. When the “owner” pulled up on the rope, the bear would stand on his hind feet in an attempt to lessen the pain. The bears lived their whole lives on a four-foot rope, all while being tortured as tourists paid money to watch them “dance.” 

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Photo courtesy of Wildlife SOS
 

The Kalandar people would cover the holes on their muzzles so the tourists wouldn’t see the wounds that were often infected and gruesome. I still don’t understand why tourists would have paid money to see these bears “dance.” Everything about this scenario screams animal cruelty. I guess ignorance is bliss? Public Service Announcement: People of the world…please educate yourselves so you don’t perpetuate this type of exploitation and cruelty!

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Photo courtesy of Wildlife SOS
 

The good news is that it is now illegal to hold these wild animals captive. The bad news is that the captured bears wouldn’t be able to survive in the wild. Wildlife SOS stepped in to care for and rehabilitate these adorable bears. Most of the bears seemed very comfortable and happy at the rescue facility, while others still displayed periodic signs of post-traumatic stress. The cuteness factor is almost too much to handle as you watch these bears play with their toys and enrichment activities, but the horrific scars on their muzzles is a constant reminder of what they had been through. Many of the bears have life-long illnesses or injuries resulting from their captors. For instance, several of the bears are now blind because the optic nerve was damaged during the piercing of the muzzle.   

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Photo courtesy of Wildlife SOS

In addition to rehabilitating the bears, Wildlife SOS sought out to rehabilitate the Kalandar people. Having relied on the sloth bears as their main source of income for generations, they didn’t have any employable skills. So they were taught a skill or trade so they could ethically earn a living. The rescue facility has a gift shop of craft items handmade by the Kalandar people and 100% of the proceeds are returned to them. I purchased assorted watercolor note cards and a scarf hand-dyed with the unmistakable silhouettes of sloth bears.

  

 I was allowed to take pictures at the rescue facility, but I was asked that they remain for “personal use only” and not be shared on social media. Therefore, the pictures in this post came from Wildlife SOS or their affiliated partners. Wildlife SOS is also making extraordinary strides for the treatment of elephants in India. I really wish we had time to visit their nearby elephant conservation center.  You can follow them on Facebook and Instagram to learn more about the amazing work they do, all while getting daily doses of cuteness.

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Photo courtesy of Wildlife SOS

 

 
 
 

Taj Mahal: A Closer Look

Taj1Taj Mahal means Crown Palace, but it is actually not a palace at all, nor was it ever intended to be a palace. The Taj Mahal is a mausoleum; built to honor Emperor Shah Jahan’s favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. (I’m no expert in polygamous relationships, but I imagine the other wives might have been a tad bitter or a bit jealous.)
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The Taj Mahal lies adjacent to the Yamuna River, and as I mentioned in my previous post, you can see the Taj Mahal from the north on the opposite side of the river. But the Taj Mahal complex was actually designed to shield it’s beauty. There are three large gates (east, west & south) from which to enter the complex. But even once you have entered the complex, you still cannot capture a full picture of her beauty. The Royal Gate is an interior gate with adjacent walls that guard the Taj Mahal from full view. The Royal Gate is made of red sandstone and the calligraphy is Koran scripture made of stone, inlaid into white marble. While standing directly in front of the Royal Gate, you can only see two windows of the Taj Mahal. Our tour guide told us it was specifically designed this way so that the gate would act as a burka, revealing only the eyes, and covering the rest of her beauty.

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View from inside the Royal Gate

The view as you walk through the Royal Gate is spectacular!
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The white marble is somewhat translucent which means the color of the Taj Mahal alters in the changing light of the day. For this reason, I originally wanted to get up extra early to see the Taj at sunrise. Luckily, our driver Raj discouraged me from doing so because he warned there would likely be a lot of “fog.” I’m glad I heeded his advice because we enjoyed beautiful, clear blue skies by postponing our visit just a couple of hours. (Refer to the bottom of this post to see the sunrise view that wasn’t.) Typically the complex is only open until 7 p.m., however if you time your visit just right, there are full moon tours available at night 5 days a month. Tourists can see the Taj Mahal aglow by the full moon light on the night of the full moon, as well as two days before and two days after. Sadly, our visit did not coincide with the lunar calendar, but believe me, I checked.
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Stone inlays and marble lattice

The white marble building took 20,000 workers 22 years to complete! But that is no surprise given the intricate craftsmanship. Just like the Royal Gate, the Koran scripture is not painted onto the marble. It is all made out of stone and inlaid into the marble. The size of the text gradually gets larger from bottom to top so that it can be read without appearing skewed when reading from ground level. The floral designs are also inlaid into the marble, made of semi-precious stones. And the intricate lattice work is all hand-carved out of the marble.

You are allowed to go inside the Taj Mahal, but photos are not allowed. Inside are replicas of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan’s tombs. The real tombs are in a lower level of the building. Emperor Shah Jahan never intended to rest inside the Taj Mahal. It was meant to honor only his beloved wife. But when his plans to build a twin Taj Mahal for himself were derailed because he was imprisoned by his son…well I guess they had to improvise.

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Mosque & Guest House
There are two identical buildings on either side of the Taj Mahal. The building to the west is a mosque and the building to the east is a guest house. These buildings are not open to the public. However, the mosque is open to descendants of the Muslim builders of the Taj Mahal. For this reason, the Taj Mahal is not open to tourists on Fridays, as this is when those descendants go to the mosque for prayer.

Tip for Tourists: Air pollution is VERY bad in India during the winter. The smog is so bad that you will literally choke on it. With cooler temps and lower air pressure, the smog settles closer to the ground. As the day gets warmer and the air pressure rises, the smog is lifted. It seemed to us that most of the Indian population was ignorant to this air pollution and they referred to it merely as “fog.” I can assure you it is not fog. Have you ever choked on fog? Of course not. Had we visited the Taj Mahal at sunrise as I initially intended, this would have been our view.

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Hotel rooftop view at sunrise
 

Taj Mahal: A First Glimpse

 
One of the reasons we left Fatehpur Sikri in such a hurry was because I wanted to get to Agra before sunset for our first glimpse of the Taj Mahal. We went to Mehtab Bagh (The Moonlight Garden) which lies directly opposite the Taj Mahal, on the other side of the Yamuna River. Mehtab Bagh is perfectly aligned with the Taj Mahal, making it an ideal place to take pictures. Emperor Shah Jahan realized this was a great viewing location, so the Moonlight Garden was created. Additionally, Mehtab Bagh was supposed to be the location of a twin Taj Mahal. Emperor Shah Jahan intended for this location to be a mausoleum for himself, made entirely of black marble. Unfortunately, his vision never came to fruition because he was imprisoned by his son. (I don’t understand why men care so much about having a male heir? A daddy’s girl never would have done that!)  

 Tip for tourists: There is a small entrance fee to enter Mehtab Bagh (only 100 rupees). However, you can get (almost) the same view for free without entering the garden complex. Our driver, Raj, tipped us off that we could walk down to the river on the public street adjacent Mehtab Bagh and still have an awesome view. So we decided not to enter the garden and took a free peek at one of the 7 Wonders of the World!  I’m not suggesting you skip the actual tour of the Taj Mahal, but it was nice to see the Taj from a different vantage point, away from the massive crowds of tourists.   

Fatehpur Sikri: The Short, Short Version

A popular tourist attraction within India’s Golden Triangle is Fatehpur Sikri, which is located along the route from Jaipur to Agra. Built in the 16th century, Fatehpur Sikri was the capital of the Mughal Empire for about 15 years, before it was abandoned due to insufficient water supply.
 We had a very full itinerary, so we weren’t sure if we were going to take the detour to tour the palace grounds. But at the last minute, we decided we would stop just to take a quick peek. Once we arrived, we were followed by a very persistent tour guide who insisted we should hire him to show us around. We were adamant that we didn’t have time for the tour, as we were just breezing through. Worn down by his persistence, we agreed to pay him a fraction of the regular tour fee, in exchange for the short, short version of the tour.

 The information I retained from the short, short version is that Emperor Akbar had 3 wives. A Muslim wife, a Christian wife, and a Hindu wife, all walk into a bar, but only the Hindu wife succeeded in bearing a male heir. As a result, the Muslim wife’s quarters were about as big as a modern-day walk-in closet. The Christian wife’s quarters were a bit more respectable, but paled in comparison to the Hindu wife’s palace. The Hindu wife’s digs were actually larger than those of the Emperor himself! Men and their ridiculous need for a son…am I right?

We didn’t even have time to complete the short, short version of the tour. Ella was tired (read: fussy) and we were trying to get to Agra before sunset. So we said goodbye to our tour guide feeling content with what we had time to see.

 Tip for tourists: Of all the places we visited in India, Fatehpur Sikri had the most thieves and scammers by far! We observed very elaborate schemes to swindle tourists out of their money and Rob even had to step in to assist a woman that was being harassed. If you are not a savvy traveler, or lack situational awareness, I would advise skipping this tourist spot. If you are unsure if you fit into either of those categories…that probably means you do.