TRAVELSCRIBBLES is a blog featuring travel reports, advice, and idea sharing for those interested in both domestic and international exploration.

Roger Sauer and his wife Donna have spent years traveling the world but have many places yet to see. You can follow their past and current travels here as well as post comments and questions about places they have visited.

Roger and Donna travelled to New Zealand and Australia in September, 2013. They will be in Paris in September 2015 with a train trip to Nice and Barcelona. They will then be aboard the Disney Magic (again) for a transatlantic cruise to Miami. Follow their travels on Twitter @rsauer3473.

Donna and Roger own Disney Vacation Club memberships at Old Key West and Beach Cub resorts in Walt Disney World. They also have other timeshare interests in Maui, Cancun, Orlando, and Palm Springs.
Feel free to contact them at 503-585-3473 if you would like rent one of these properties.

Where Do You Want To Go Today?

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Westin Lagunamar: Week 2

Part 2- After the Deluge
Thursday and Friday were the wettest days we have seen in a long time. After the exciting Costco trip on Friday we were prepared for the worst on Saturday and almost had our fears fulfilled as it was raining when we were drinking our morning coffee on the patio. But guess what. The rain stopped. And before long, we proceeded down to the pool to read, swim, and sit in the sun. It was very pleasant. And because we had not planned anything big to do because the weather had been so bad, we just took the bus up Kukulkan Boulevard after lunch to the Coral Market a few miles north.

At this market which is described by many as a "flea market" there are many stalls featuring tourist goods. Colin, our grandson, bought a backpack and a poncho. We purchased a small poncho for Caidin, his little brother. The bargaining was not too intense, though every store featured at least one salesman who would follow us up the walk claiming his were the cheapest goods. This means we probably paid too much. A Starbucks was spotted a block away and we did our best to use up some gift cards on iced coffee drinks.

Upon our return we went swimming then barbecued steaks we had purchased at Costco. I do not know what type of steaks they were, but they were great.

Sunday presented even more sun, so we got up earlier to get a bus to Playa Tortuga and take the catamaran ferry to Isla Mujeres. This is a long narrow island off the east coast of Cancun that is named either for small statues of females that Spaniards found on beaches during their first visits or for the place where pirates left their women before they sailed off into the Caribbean in search of plunder. On the boat to the island we purchased a day's use of a golf cart to explore the island. This driving was fun and after getting out of the small town at the north end, Colin took over at the wheel. He drove well though he seemed to recognize that even signs in Spanish that indicate stop - ALTO - should be obeyed. Along the shore we saw large iguanas and even had to swerve to avoid them. Isla Mujeres was described to as as a more authentic, real Mexico than that found in Cancun's Zona Hotelera. If so, the real Mexico is widespread poverty, some wealthy coastal estates, and considerable roadside garbage easily accessible on golf carts.

Lunch was eaten at the north end of the island where we dined on the beach on tacos, calamari, and chicken (not all together). Very good food at the Zazil Ha restaurant at the Na Balam Hotel. Many of the hotels in the region after Mayan gods, places, or terms. After dining Colin drove us around the island again in time to get the 2:30 PM ferry back to the mainland. Unfortunately we discovered that return times for the ferry are every hour on the half hour EXCEPT 2:30 PM. So we waited at the pier in the shade and let the sea breeze and sound from a Mexican presidential political rally down the street wash over us. As we pulled into the port of Playa Tortuga, we observed a girl jumping off a Bungee Tower on the pier. I told Colin I would pay for his ride. He declined.

The following day began very cloudy but by 8:30 AM the sky was clearing and we felt it worth heading to the pool. There were very few people around so we basically had the pool to ourselves for a couple of hours. I jumped some waves in the ocean while Donna read and we struck up a conversation with a gentleman from Boston. Lunch in our room was simple and we then walked a half mile or so to a restaurant called La Distilleria to get a couple of T-shirts. The place is a bar modeled after an old tequila factory, hence the name. Not long after returning to our room a real thunder and lightning storm erupted right over our hotel. I got some video but it did not really do the storm justice. Of course, the window in our bathroom was awash as rivulets of water ran down to the tub.

Tuesday broke sunny and bright so we spent the good part of the morning by the pool. But by noon the heat driven clouds came in and the rains fell once again. Later as things dried we walked to La Isla Mall where we tried to find the Liverpool Department Store where Donna had heard she could find a purse she had seen a young girl carrying on the boat from Isla Mujeres. Unfortunately, there are few signs around the mall and it was after some looking that we found the store on the second level only because its doormat read LIVERPOOL. But no similar purse could be found.

On arriving back at our resort, it was our time to try to blend our own Margaritas. Colin helped us to do this. They were very good considering our recipe was sketchy and mixing skills amateurish. Wednesday was largely spent by the pool. The nearest elevator to our room was under repair so Colin and I had to walk down stairs, a literal trip for me as I stumbled on a landing and scraped my hand on a wall and somehow banged up my foot. In the afternoon we took the bus to Walmart to do what we hoped would be our last shopping. We barbecued burgers and chicken in the evening.

Colin and I took an excursion to Tulum Thursday morning. We were picked up in a small van which we thought was our transport only to discover we were to be moved onto a larger bus further up the Boulevard. After collecting a few more tourists we drove into Cancun to get the major roadway into Tulum, about two hour away. The bus load of passengers was provided with a guide Mary speaking in both Spanish and English about Mayan history and the local area. Selling customized jewelry and posters with names in Mayan characters was part of her presentation. People could order theirs on forms that were passed around but they never managed to get passed to us. The ride became more pleasant after the narration stopped. As we neared Tulum we were given stickers with the number 9 on them. This, I guess, was to identify our group. The bus took until 10 AM to reach Tulum one of the earliest landfalls of the Spanish in Mexico. The invaders never stayed around because they saw no gold here. The scenery was flat green overgrowth with vacant buildings and political signs, sort of like Florida. Many tour buses were in the parking lot. Mary gave us our marching orders: go through the jewelry store to the toilets first, then meet at one of the convenience stores to get supplies (water, bug spray, etc.) that we might need. Colin and I had beverages, sun block and bug spray so we were ready. I did, however, pick up a small package of cookies.

Beyond the shop was a wide thoroughfare lined with merchants selling other necessities: Cuban cigars, ceramic skulls, wooden masks, and serapes. At a large square bordered by a Subway and many more shops we got in line by Mary who tried to differentiate us from the dozens of other tour groups as we waited for the tram to take us into the archaeological site. The tram was driven by a Massey-Ferguson tractor and carried us about half a mile out to the coast where the ruins were like sun-bleached bones jutting out of well-maintained lawns. Through a few pathways and under a stone arch we ambled in a long line until we approached the first ruins. Our English-speaking guide, a man, took over and led us to a shady area where he spoke intelligently but too lengthily about the orientation of the structures and how the Mayans used number patterns to help organize their understanding of their world. Then we passed to another building where he showed some of the unique architectural details that we would nor have understood. For example, the corners of one building have designs on them which, when viewed from the right angle can be clearly recognized as faces, some happy, some sad.

After this we were set loose on our own to study the ruins on our own with clear instructions to return to our starting point, the Dairy Queen near the park entrance, by 12:30 PM. A word about Tulum weather: very hot and very humid. We were sweating profusely in the sun but nevertheless walked up by the largest temple overlooking the sea to catch the view. Small boats were in the water and it appeared there were about a hundred tourists who had fled their guides and were swimming in the turquoise breakers below. A long queue had formed to get the tram back to the park entrance so we walked. During the walk I was reminded about my bruised foot with every step. Approaching the main square we caught a show where some decorated Mexican dancers climbed a tall pole, then, as another member played a small pipe and drum combination, slowly descended spinning around the pole on ropes attached to their legs. Lower and lower they spun as their ropes played themselves out. We were hit up for a tip by another man who expressed chagrin when I gave five pesos, all the change I had. Subway seemed the safest bet for lunch, so we picked ours up somewhat disappointed that five dollar footlong does not translate easily into Spanish with its pesos and meters. I got a 15 centimeter 60 peso Italian BMT. Doesn't actually work as a song lyric. On the way back we dropped a few members of our group at an aquatic play area, Xel-Ha.

Friday and Saturday were spent by the pool and, last night, packing. We were leaving at noon on Sunday and have a four hour layover in Houston.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Two Weeks on the Riviera Maya

Part 1: Do two Jesuses bring good luck or bad weather?

Donna, our grandson Colin, and I arrived in Cancun after a long flight from Portland via Houston. A small mechanical problem delayed our connecting flight, however we still flew in about 3:30 PM. The three of us easily maneuvered through customs with forms we filled out on the plane, then grabbed our bags, and set out through the terminal to find our car and driver that we had arranged through Claudia Becerra, a resort concierge, the week prior. A gauntlet of "official transportation representatives" besieged us while we headed outside the building. Across the driveway was a large man with a purple shirt and a Westin Lagunamar sign. He had our name on a list so we moved to the slot where a very new Suburban backed in. Our driver was Jesus. As it was Sunday, this fact represented our religious experience for the week and, as this was our first trip to Mexico, was taken as a sign of good luck. The rate through this company, One Travel (not affiliated with the resort) is $35 each way for a twenty minute trip up the sliver of beach that is the Zona Hotelera between the Caribbean Sea and an expansive Nichupte Lagoon.

We were glad to have been warned ahead of time about those other drivers. The terrain around Cancun is flat as a tortilla but concrete and glass shards of hotels have pushed their was up through the sand on this stretch of Quintana Roo.

  The Westin Lagunamar resort is a timeshare property, the most recently purchased interval vacation resort we own. It is a 7-8 floor sandy beige structure composed in an irregular E shape with the openings facing the Gulf. The newer phase opening this year was the southern part of the E. Our room was a one bedroom unit on the corner of the sixth floor of building 8 facing the main pool area, beach, and (as this is being written) a glorious sunrise and a view of a resort employee raking the beach, a job that has its appeal. Each curve of the E wraps around massive symmetrical pools with infinity edges, swim-up bars, whirlpools, and children's play areas. The north pool has a slide.

This corner unit allowed for lanai access from both living area and bedroom. Each room had its own air conditioning controls. A full kitchen with a microwave but no oven, stacked laundry appliances, and large bathroom with separate shower and jetted tub made this an ideal place from which to plan our excursions. Registration was quick and our clerk was also named Jesus. Luis from bell services was very helpful in orienting us to the room and handling our bags. A couple of minor problems arose: a lamp with a faulty switch and the lack of a stopper in one of the two bathroom sinks. We filled out a service request card to have these issues addressed. By the time we returned from a
shopping trip the next day, the sink was fixed, the lamp was not repaired until a second call after a day or two. A few days later during a rainstorm we noticed other patios had cushions for the patio chairs. We called and asked for a set which came to us wet and moldy from another room. When I called guest services to request a new set, I was told there are no extras, only wet ones from other rooms. Later that evening, clean dry pads were delivered. Due to our longer stay, it was important to get groceries.

The small Tierra Market on the resort's lowest floor is limited and those shopping face resort prices. On the advice of the concierge we opted to take a city bus to a Wal-Mart grocery store subsidiary, Superama, about twenty minutes up Kukulkan Drive near downtown Cancun. The bus tickets are 8.5 pesos per trip. The store is new and is arranged like any domestic U.S. grocery. An in-store bakery, produce section, and meat and fish departments allowed us to meet most of our needs. Liquor, beers, and wine are available. Prices for most items were comparable to those in the U.S. After an hour of shopping and collecting a cart full of bags, we obtained a cab outside the store for the ride back to Westin Lagunamar. The fare was 140 pesos, a little over $11.00. There are several Wal-Marts in Cancun and also a Costco. The resort features three restaurants: Oceano, a breakfast and dinner full-service restaurant and two pool bar/restaurants, Viento by the North pool and Duna by the South. Across the wide Kukulkan Drive is La Isla Mall, a sprawling web of restaurants, shops, and brand name stores between the Drive and Nichupte Lagoon.

On our first evening we had dinner at one small restaurant called Taco Grill where food was fresh, prices reasonable, and service prompt. The only confusion came when we tried to add the tip to the credit card bill and wound up using cash, pesos, that is.

A word about Mexican currency: as this is written the going exchange rate for the dollar in Mexico is 13.7632 pesos. This means that one peso is worth a little more than 7 cents. Some shops and even the Westin posts a 13 pesos to the dollar "official" rate and I saw a rate as low as 12.5 pesos to the dollar. This means that some merchants are getting a slight favorable bump on every exchange. Perhaps the overage goes to St. Cecilia's Charity Home for the Math-Impaired, but I doubt it. For most large purchases we used credit or debit cards that tend to be pegged to official rates despite some bank fees. All merchants have calculators and can figure dollar equivalents. Personally, I don't do math in public.

One of the activities available on a weekly basis is a shopping tour of downtown Cancun. The cost of the tour is $10 USD per person and includes lunch we were told. Great deal. So we signed up and were driven in a van with eight or so others eager to dispose of their cash. Stop one was Market 28; salespersons were waiting for us at this shop. Individual shoppers were accompanied by the salespersons to explain the price coding on items. This means that no shopper has a hint of the sales price. Pottery, blankets, artwork, and jewelry filled the shop's many rooms. Despite the assurances of quality, origin, and great price of treasures ranging from wall hangings to bowls to Corona T-shirts, we did not buy. The second stop was also called Market 28, a meandering maze of shops a mile or two further. The two rules of Mexican shopping appear to be: 1) the priceless souvenir you buy will be cheaper at the second kiosk and 2) even cheaper at the third kiosk. Nevertheless, we purchased a couple of blankets, purses, a mortar and pestle. My own personal purchase was a trip to the bathroom where I paid a dollar for services rendered. The only bargain of the day.

After these two stops we were driven to a restaurant called Cantinita situated coincidentally right above another location of Taco Grill. Once seated we learned that the "included meal" was $25 USD per person. Our party of three asked for clarification on this and were informed that the cost was not included. This was surprising to us as the same person told us earlier in the day that the meal was included. To the extent that the shoppers were at the restaurant ten miles from the resort and could eat where they had been dropped off, this was technically correct. However, we three hopped out of our seats along with a nice lady from Seattle and descended the stairs for another great meal at this branch of the Taco Grill. The host Ricardo was especially friendly and helpful. Prices for three with Sangria and tip was about $40.00.

The Westin has a gym area with free weights and a variety of ellipticals and treadmills on the lower level adjacent to the Kid's Club and market. A book trade area, foosball and air hockey tables are available for older children and outside the building guests have access to a miniature golf course that is somewhat austere and less than competitive as players are not given score cards (and I can't really count well my fingers while holding a club.) Owners of timeshares and their guests do not need to pay resort fees along with nightly room rates. One benefit is free Internet. Rooms have an Ethernet cable as well as wi-fi. However, connection speeds vary greatly during the day- great in the morning, maddeningly slow in the evening. There were not enough outlets for our electronics. Bring a power strip.

The expansive pools at the resort are the center of activity and many guests can take advantage of poolside bingo, craft sales, pool slide races and games. There are many lounge chairs and umbrellas on the pool decks as well as thatched umbrellas and chairs on the beach for guests. About a dozen well maintained KitchenAid gas barbecues are strategically placed near pool area for visitors desirous of home cooked meals. While the resort says lounge chairs cannot be reserved with strategically placed beach towels before 9:30 AM., the rule is not enforced well. Pool towels are rationed through the use of cards issued at check-in that are used to trade for towels at pool kiosks. Again, the theory and practice are different as we ended up with about a dozen pool cards by the fourth day of our stay. And by the fifth day of our stay the towels that were placed on chairs by the early birds at 7 AM were soaked by 9:00 AM due to a rather persistent weather system that included lightning and thunder during the night. I saw this a a sign that Jesus the driver or Jesus the registration clerk was looking out for us and punishing the early towel placers.

We had seen some rain infrequently earlier in our stay but the rain was continuing into the afternoon. So we decided to move our "owner update" presentation by the Westin timeshare folks up to the rainy day in hopes that Friday would be nicer. The 90 minute presentation was informative. This means that we listened but did not buy any more timeshare despite "a really neat opportunity to make even better use of our ownership." The opportunity involved giving them $15,900. The rain looked better than staying around the sales center.

Unfortunately, the rain continued and plans for excursions on Friday were again curtailed. We decided to try to go to Costco for additional supplies. This required taking a bus to Wal-Mart, then a cab to Costco. While we were prepared for rain, the short trip to the bus stop left us drenched. The tropical depression had rain worse than cats and dogs because they had all drowned. The Cancun Costco is like any other Costco except for the signs. There were few people there and we were very surprised at this. Samples were being given out everywhere. Our favorites were the Grey Goose Vodka and Bacardi Rum- a practice our Salem branch should adopt. Our cart full, we pushed on to the hot dog station for lunch then tried to get a cab. The rain by this time was torrential and the covered apron around the store was packed with customers waiting for the rain to let up (they may still be there.) Finally, one cab arrived, a station wagon where we loaded our bags then then got in. There we met a smallish John Belushi look-alike who informed us that the fare was not $15 as we had been told but $25. After some dickering the price went down, but we again were concerned that the driver whose English was poorer than our Spanish was hopelessly lost.

In time the mystery was solved when we stopped at a gas station where our driver obtained translation services. (Why don't US stations do this?) Apparently the rain had flooded the northern stretch of Kukulkan Boulevard into the hotel zone so we had to go the much longer south route nearer the airport. Even if the south road was better, the drive was nerve-wracking as the car had no operable ventilation or defrost system, the driver had to keep wiping his window, and the entire experience was like moving within a very wet ping pong ball. Our fears of being captured by a Mexican drug cartel were allayed and we soon arrived at our hotel room where rain had leaked through a bathroom window drenching a strategically placed towel and leaving rain across the floor. A call to guest services was promptly answered with a gentleman bringing his solution to the flooding- more towels.

Groceries all stowed away, we decided to walk on the beach to look for shells in the light rain. Few shells were found.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

REVIEW: Sheraton Waikiki

We stayed at the Sheraton Waikiki for three nights in early January. We used SPG Starpoints (10,000 per night.) The receptionist offered us the opportunity to use the 30th floor Leahi Lounge for breakfast and dinner for only $55 per night. However, after having a "dinner" of potstickers and cold cuts, we told them we'd pass for the remainder of our stay. There are dozens of restaurants nearby in the Royal Hawaiian shopping area in clouding a reasonably priced food court serving Korean, Japanese, American, and Mexican fare.

By using Starpoints we missed the obligatory resort fee of $30 or so per night. We had free self-parking services as well as wifi and other perks. This was included in the resort fee of $25 per night.

Our upgraded room was very spacious, over 900 square feet with beautiful views of Waikiki Beach and Diamond Head in the distance. The neutral colors of the rooms were in need of upgrading and the rug had seen better days. The bathroom with small tub and toilet was cramped, though the suite featured a large dressing area.

The suite featured a large living room with lanai, flatscreen TV and both a full sofa, love seat, and murphy bed. The bedroom had a king bed, lanai and TV. There was ample closet space.

The hotel features multiple pools including and activity pool with slide and a quiet pool with infinity edge near a bar area. This latter pool was crowded. The nearby Royal Hawaiian shopping area includes many moderate and high end shops with sky bridges to help guests cross streets.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Disney's Hawaiian Resort and Spa, AULANI

Aulani, a Disney Resort and Spa, in Ko Olina, Oahu, Hawaii, represents Disney's first major resort not affiliated with a theme park. (Its Disney Vacation Club has timeshare resorts in Vero Beach FL and Hilton Head SC.)

Set on a man-made lagoon about a half hour west of Honolulu, the resort is comprised of a central lobby area and two 14 and 16 floor towers featuring both Vacation Club studio, one, two, and three bedroom units and hotel rooms.

As this is written in January 2012, many rooms in the east Ewa tower are still undergoing interior construction though there appeared to be no exterior cranes or site work underway. For all practical purposes the resort is complete for the average guest.

When complete, the resort will include 360 hotel rooms and 481 Disney Vacation Club two-bedroom equivalent timeshare villas.

Our room was a deluxe studio on the third floor, the lobby level, which made access to most public areas very easy. The room had a queen bed and a sleeper sofa, flat screen TV and full bath. The WIFI was excellent both in the room and in public areas, even by the pool near the beach.

The decor aims at authentic Hawaiian style and the use of native woods, rock, and artwork throughout set this resort apart from the gleaming white (and sterile) look of the J. W. Marriott resort next door. Lush landscaping and use of water in ponds, fountains, and streams belie the fact that this resort has been open only five months.

We are DVC members and had an eight night reservation following a three day stay in Waikiki. Ko Olina is an exclusive tourist area much like Kaanapali in Maui and there is a security gate needed just to enter. A common complaint of some reviewers has been that there is not much to do here unlike busy Waikiki or a Disney theme park. We didn't find this a problem; while a concierge and tour desk can arrange trips around the island, we enjoyed lounging by the pool and making use of the resort's own amenities.

Chief among these is the Waikolohe Valley pool area. This is called a valley as it resides between the two massive resort towers, Ewa and Wai'anae, akin to a tropical space between two Hawaiian mountain ranges. Within this valley is children's water play area where staying dry would be a great challenge. Two infinity spas overlook the lagoon and there are two other spas in the valley, one almost invisible from nearby trails.

For security hotel guests are issued different colored wrist bands each day when they use the pools. This is to dissuade non-Disney folks from using the pool. And, thank goodness, there is a policy against "towel on the lounge chair" saving of pool chairs. Items are removed after an hour of non-use. The message: use the chair or use it. This will be even more important once the resort is fully finished. And with fewer nearby attractions available, there will be more people staying in the pool areas.

A lazy river, Waikolohe Stream, surrounds a huge mountain that includes both an inner tube slide and a standard water slide (though this second slide is totally dark as it winds through the mountain.) Occasionally the mountain erupts with some mild fire effects and there is a small cave where one can see some lave and fire effects close up. Like the Tree of Life in Animal Kingdom, the mountain and rock work around it feature well concealed carved sea life much of which I did not see until I had taken a few trips around the river. There is even a chicken, a reference to the wild birds that roam neighboring Kawai.

Some of these carvings include whales that "blow" occasionally as a result of guests playing the Menehune Adventure Trail, a KimPossible type activity involving a smart phone device which leads guests around the Valley to activate fires, rocks, music, and even whales carved in rocks. The host is a pleasant Hawaiian woman known only as Auntie. This is same character in Auntie's Beach House, the children's child care and activity center. Guests may use these facilities including the child care free (for children 3+ years and potty trained) just like on Disney Cruise ships.

One activity that is fun (and free) is locating the little Menehune statues throughout the resort. These mythical Hawaiian sprites can found lounging around the gardens in Waikolohe Valley, asleep atop a moulding in an elevator, or riding a decorative outrigger near the water slide. Hidden Mickey's? I haven't seen many, though the Disney characters are available for photos during the day and there is a musical revue with them and native musicians three nights a week in a lawn area near the quiet pool.

Two admission fee based activities are the Rainbow Reef and the Makai Reserve adjacent to the pool area. Rainbow reef is akin to the salt water snorkeling area of Typhoon Lagoon. For $20 guests can swim with multicolored tropical fish ($39 for a length of stay pass.) Two aquarium type windows are available for landlubbers to view the many small multicolored species that inhabit the pool. This may be to your liking if swimming in the lagoon a few hundred feet away does not appeal to you. But the lagoon is free and, while cloudy due to guest activity in the near shore, there are plenty of fish out by the rocky areas that mark the mouth of the lagoon. My advice is to walk to either side of the mouth and swim toward the middle. I saw lots of fish and even a three-legged turtle that I discovered goes by the name of Lucky. The Makai Reserve is an area where for $50 one can interact with sting rays in a pool.

On a couple of evenings each week a musical show, "Starlight Hui," is presented on a stage by a grassy area on the west side of the property. This mix of Hawaiian storytelling, hula, ukulele playing, and audience participation was a pleasant way to spend an evening. Of course, Mickey and friends came to the stage at the end of the program.

If the costs of some activities seem high, well, welcome to Hawaii. Though even for Hawaii, local prices are higher due to the fact that this area is tourist oriented and, at least for the near future, is in a place that is away from much of the commercial activity. As we were staying in a DVC unit, we had a modest kitchen area with microwave and refrigerator. About four miles away are a number of shopping sites such as Costco, Safeway, and Target as well as nationally recognized fast food places. An ABC store is across the street north of the resort. A small gift shop is near the main lobby .

The resort also features a full service spa called Laniwai (varied treatments for a fee) and an exercise area (free.) Near the spa is a pleasant teen lounge, Painted Sky, with computers, games, and a frozen yogurt bar.

We only tried one of the restaurants at Aulani. As frequent visitors to both Maui and Disney World where prices can be high, we were taken aback by the cost of onsite dining here. The Makahiki dinner buffet is $43 and the beachfront Ama AMA restaurant has entrees in the $30-80 range.

We had a dinner at the Makahiki buffet on the lower level near the lobby. This is an Asian/Pacific/Japanese buffet in a restaurant partially inside and partially on the patio adjacent to the Waikolohe Stream and koi ponds. The menu featured sushi, sashimi, a variety of fish plates, fish and pork lau lau (wrapped and steamed in leaves), beef, vegetables, and a good array of desserts. We initially were seated inside it the area was quite loud due to the hard surfaces and busy clientele; we asked to be seated on the patio. Once on the patio our dinner was accompanied by a phalanx of pre-schoolers running around and, by all appearances, were intent on re-enacting the Battle of Midway. (Think Chef Mickey's without the peace and quiet.) Parents, part of a wedding party, were oblivious to their activities. A manager we contacted seemed distressed to have to deal with the issue, but things seemed to calm down a bit.

The big problem here is that around Ko Olina, there are not many child-friendly restaurants and hotel restaurants are expensive. Our advice is to observe a dinner here when you are not dining and see if this is your cup of tea. If it looks okay to you, try it. If you are looking for a quiet dinner, go elsewhere. Plans are now underway to install another quick service station near the pool deeck and I received a note the other day that Makahiki is now offering an ala carte menu.

Menus can be viewed online at a number of websites.  I was told by a DVC staffer that the resort will install electric barbecues when the Ewa Tower DVC room are completed.

If Aulani is your sole target for a Hawaiian vacation, a car is a must. Shuttles from the airport run about $70 each way. Parking at the resort is $35 per day (free for DVC members using points for their stay.) An Alamo car rental is onsite. Some people rent a car on a daily basis on the resort and avoid the parking charge. A day long shopping tour into Honolulu is a featured activity that the resort offers. The bus travels to a few big malls including the Ala Moana Mall near Waikiki; the cost is $30 per person for a day of shopping. There is a strong draw here for tourists from Japan, a demographic to which Disney is aiming a great deal of marketing. Signage around the resort is in both English and Japanese.

Staying at Aulani is not cheap. Rates for standard rooms, ocean view, is about $400 per night that adds up to about $3,500 a week with taxes. A studio like ours runs about $600 per night. We were lucky; we used points for a pool view room and, while we are on the lobby or 3rd floor, we still see the ocean as well as parts of the Waikolohe stream and children's water play area.

Having stayed at many Disney resorts in the US, Asia, and Europe, this resort ranks in the top tier. And in Aulani Disney has found a surefire ticket to providing a quality vacation experience that does not require a theme park.

Hits and Misses at Aulani
Overall environment and theming
Room quality and comfort
Pool area with easy beach access
Staff service and hospitality

Lack of nearby activities
Restaurant prices
Need for a car