How to ride Rise of the Resistance at Disneyland: An opening weekend story

Friday, January 17, 2020 – The Toy Story parking garage opened at midnight (or so they said, they actually never closed it). Ten minutes to six they opened the gates of Disneyland. Crowds of Star Wars / Disney lovers swarmed Main Street. Disneyland wouldn’t officially open until 8 AM that day but thousands had swarmed the House of Mouse before the sun rose. They were hoping this early morning strategy would help their chance of obtaining a coveted spot on Disneyland’s newest ride: The Rise of the Resistance.

At 8 AM it was finally time. Cheers of happiness could be heard throughout the park from those in the crowd who had successfully reserved a boarding group. My husband yelled out gleefully about his own victory at 8:02 AM. By 8:03 AM all the boarding groups were taken. By 8:07 AM all the back up boarding groups were taken as well. The park wouldn’t close until midnight, but if you showed up after 8:07 AM, you weren’t getting on that ride.

Boarding Sign for Rise of the Resistance

What is a Boarding Group?

The Boarding Group is a virtual queue system. The system opens at the same time that Disneyland opens each day. Any guest that has scanned their ticket into the park can use the Disneyland App and attempt to join a boarding group. The number of your boarding group (from lowest to highest) determines how soon you’ll be able to enter the ride. Disneyland guarantees that the first 81 groups will get to ride. They continue to allow bookings up to group 140. Boarding groups 82-140 are known as back up boarding groups because they will not be guaranteed a spot. However, since the ride will of course be running until the park closes, barring any maintenance issues, Disneyland will continue to call up groups after the initial 81 boarding groups all the way up until the park closes.

Boarding Sign for Rise of the Resistance

Why all the fuss? What is Rise of the Resistance anyway?

According to Disneyland’s own blog, Rise of the Resistance (ROTR) is the most ambitious, advanced and immersive experiences ever undertaken by Walt Disney Imagineering. They weren’t kidding. There are so many different experiences and types of ride systems within ROTR. Ride-inception you might call it!

Section 1: The caves of Batuu and receiving your mission

It is a scene reminiscent of the line queue at Universal Studios’ “Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey”. Gone are the wrap around chain linked line queues that are common place in Fantasyland. Here at Rise of the Resistance, the line queue itself gives you much to look at. And it culminates in a hologram of Rey and a “real” BB-8 recruiting you to a secret Resistance mission. While the line currently moves pretty fast through this area due to the boarding group set up (which is only temporary while the ride is still new), the Imagineers have even carved benches into the “caves of Batuu” to allow many guests a place to sit when the lines inside ROTR become longer in future years.

Section 2: Fly into space aboard a transport ship… but not without some complications from the First Order

You’ll board a transport ship headed for Bakura. Picture an area reminiscent of the shuttle rides you take at the airport to move between terminals. However, this ship isn’t just for looks, it actually moves in addition to providing awesome realistic visual graphics. Emily received quite a bit of stares when she loudly proclaimed that this was “the best ride ever!” and yes, the real ride hadn’t even begun yet.

Transport Ship Views from ROTR

While riding along in the transport ship you’ll be captured by the First Order. And I don’t just mean by graphics of the First Order. Cast members board the ship and march you into Storm Trooper Palooza! Think mass squadron of Storm Troopers all standing in ready attention and looking at you.

Section 3: Escape from the First Order in one of the most technologically advanced ride experiences ever

After getting your fill of pictures with storm troopers (we don’t have any as Emily was scared of them), it’s time to head onto the fast-paced action part of Rise of the Resistance. You’ll enter your ride vehicle, set up with two rows of four seats and an R5 droid to navigate. Trackless technology, amazing state of the art animatronics to gape at and motion simulation of drops and turns makes this 15-20 minute ride one you CANNOT miss.

How did my family get one of the coveted golden tickets… errrr boarding groups to Rise of the Resistance?

Maybe you’ve heard the stories of the bleary-eyed guests showing up at the gates of Disneyland before 5 AM in hopes of getting a pass. Is that our recommendation? Is that what my family did? Heck no. The flight that my family took from Honolulu didn’t even land until 5:40 AM on Friday morning. Then the group of 8 had to navigate through checked bags, a shuttle ride, a hotel check in and breakfast… all before making it to the park (and their hotel wasn’t very close to the park). Truth be told, only my husband and daughter made it through the park before 8 AM on that Friday morning. And so only my husband and daughter got to go on Rise of the Resistance on Friday.

So how did he do it? With very little prep time and no other person available for fast finger help? He played it smart. “Where in Disneyland would there be a strong Wi-Fi signal?” he thought. A place with very few other people clambering to get online at 8 AM? He came up with a theory and spent the 15 precious minutes between when the lands all opened and the line queue went online to race to the spot he picked out. He checked their Wi-Fi capability. It turned out he was right. So here is his secret that worked for him 2 out of the 3 days: the Tea Cups at Fantasyland have amazing Disney Wi-Fi and not a huge spot for the ROTR crowd.

Rise of the Resistance

Is this approach foolproof?

Unfortunately, no. On day three Disney Wi-Fi dropped right before 8 AM. By the time he got through he was in boarding group 110. That would have still been okay on day one when boarding groups all the way up to #114 were called back. But unfortunately on Sunday Rise of the Resistance went down with maintenance issues for almost three hours. It was even unsure whether the 81 “guaranteed” groups would get to go. Oh well, 2 out of 3 days is still a pretty amazing feat if you ask me.

Things to keep in mind if you want to score your own boarding group to Rise of the Resistance:

What to do before you the virtual line queue opens

  1. Most importantly, download the Disneyland App (its icon is blue with the Disney castle and a firework above the left side of the castle).
  2. Set up an account on the Disneyland App and log in.
  3. If you are managing the account for anyone else you in your party (i.e. a small child), make sure they are set up as your guest.
  4. Scan and link all Disneyland tickets / passes to the app by scanning the barcode or manually typing in the ticket number.
  5. If you want to ride with anyone else that has their own account, make sure that they are linked to you in the “Family and Friends” list.
  6. All guests that want to ride ROTR need to have their park tickets / passes scanned and be inside Disneyland park before the boarding groups can be obtained. No ifs, ands, or buts.
  7. Since currently these boarding groups are getting filled within minutes of the park opening, make sure you are inside before the official opening of the park. This is key!

OMG the virtual line queue is open! Now what?

  1. Open the Disneyland App. (Actually, do this before the line queue opens. It automatically refreshes itself when the time comes.)
  2. You’ll see a “Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance – Access By Boarding Group” section. Click on “Join Boarding Group.”
  3. In the boarding group section of the app, you’ll be able to check all the members of your party that want to ride the attraction.
  4. Once you’ve checked everyone in your party to enter a boarding group, you’ll get your boarding group number.

One thing to note: I’ve heard different stories about groups. I’ve heard that the larger your party the harder it is to get an early group number. But then I learned that my husband was number 67 when there were only 2 people in his group and number 44 the next day when there were 8 people in his group. I heard that everyone with smart phone capabilities in your group should try to get the boarding passes and the app will simply lock the others in the party out from the app once they pass goes through from your fastest fingered party member. And then I heard that if you do that you run the chance of having everyone in your group be put on different boarding pass groups.

I’m a fast finger Disney god / goddess that got a boarding group number. What should I do next?

Anything you want. Seriously. You don’t need to stay at the park. My daughter went back to the hotel and took a nap on both days. You can jump over to DCA like my husband did. The world is your oyster. Just keep checking your phone.

Boarding groups will be sent a push notification when it is time to enter the attraction. You will have 2 hours once you are notified to return to the ride. Please note that only the person with the reservations will get the push notification telling you it is time to enter the ride. That being said, anyone can see what groups are being called. For example, sitting at my desk in Honolulu I can use the app see that they are currently boarding groups 41 – 46.

Additionally, there are signboards around the park indicating which boarding groups are currently being called.

Em and her Porg
For example, you could buy a porg that sits (with magnetic help) on your shoulder. Meet Fuzzy, the newest member of our family.

I don’t have a smart phone. Am I out of luck?

Yes and no. There are Rise of the Resistance FASTPASS kiosks next to the Splash Mountain FASTPASS in Critter Country or next to the Buzz Lightyear Astroblasters in Tomorrowland. That being said, on the first three days at the park, boarding passes were gone in minutes due to those using the Disneyland App. I think it’ll take months if not much longer before the FASTPASS kiosks actually become a viable option.

Rider Switch, FASTPASS, Single rider options?

As of opening weekend, only the Rider Switch option was available. FASTPASS and single rider options are planned and built into the ride, but not available yet. However if you want / need to use Rider Switch, you are in luck.

Tell the Cast Member at the attraction entrance that you would like to use Rider Switch. The group (minus the adult that is staying behind with the child) will enter the regular line queue and ride the attraction. When the group is done with the ride, the left behind adult will be able to enter the ride through the FASTPASS line. While FASTPASS isn’t being used in the normal sense, it is being used to facilitate Rider Switch.

Disneyland: Star Wars Land

May the odds be ever in your favor!

Hawaii Girl Travels…

Check out Destinations to see all the other places I’ve talked about. For other posts about Disney, read up about our experiences at Aulani’s Painted Sky and Aulani’s Pau Hana Room and Menehune Adventure Trails.

Funtastic KidZone: A Kid’s Wonderland in the Middle of a Huge Shopping Mall

Until this past December, I hadn’t stepped foot in the Pearlridge Shopping Center for years. Now I think I might make it a monthly occurrence thanks to the Funtastic KidZone.

But first…. my previous allure: the monorail

When I was a little kid, one of my favorite places to visit was the Pearlridge Center. Why? Because they had a monorail. Seriously, how cool is that? Fun fact: Pearlridge Center has the only monorail in the state. Two major sections make up the mall: “Mauka” (previously called “Uptown”) and “Wai Makai” (previously called “Downtown”). And the monorail bridges the two sides.

As a little kid, I used to go just so I could ride the monorail. Back when I was the mother of a toddler, we visited Pearlridge Center all the time to ride the monorail. It was Emily’s most favorite thing on earth for several years running. While she still loves the monorail, Emily has a lot of other “favorites” these days. Visits to Pearlridge had completely fallen by the wayside. That changed once we were invited to a birthday party at the Funtastic KidZone. My daughter had such a good time at the party that the Funtastic KidZone has been added to our rotating list of places to visit when Emily isn’t in school.

Playground at the Funtastic KidZone

What is the Funtastic KidZone?

A huge indoor playground arena is located in the Wai Makai section of Pearlridge Center, nestled between Vans and Sketchers. Towards the front of the KidZone, you’ll find a toddler section for ages 1-4. Everything from a whale and a mini merry-go-round to plastic playground structures and kitchen sets abound in the toddler section. Towards the back of the Funtastic KidZone is a structure for older kids. Slides, hammock swings, a trampoline, caterpillar climbing structure… you name it. It is pretty much heaven to my daughter and the other kids enjoying their time.

Swing Fun!

What to bring to the Funtastic KidZone?

Socks are a must for kids enjoying the play structures (and I assume for parents that need to be in the structure with their younger kids as well). They do offer socks for purchase if you forget. I’d also recommend water. Lots of water. Getting my kid to drink water on a daily basis is no easy feat. But Emily definitely gets thirsty running around the place. She constantly stops by wherever I’m sitting to grab her hydroflask. However, don’t worry if you forget or run out (like I did on our first visit). The Funtastic Kidzone does offer water bottles for $1. And that’s actually a pretty good deal considering what bottles of water go for these days in vending machines.

How does pricing work at the Funtastic KidZone?

The Funtastic KidZone costs $15 per kid (free entry for adults). That entrance fee is good for 2 hours, although I’m not sure how well that is monitored. When we went this week I dragged my kid out of there right at the two-hour mark. However, at the birthday party we attended we were there for over three hours. The party had officially ended by that time but my daughter and some of her friends continued to stay and play at the KidZone.

Toddler Area of the Funtastic KidZone

Throwing a party?

I’ll say it. I hate throwing kid birthday parties. Maybe I have really poor planning skills but I feel like my parties are always super disorganized. We’re never ready on time, end up needing tons of help from other parents and the kids end up starving. So embarrassing! (Those will be stories for another day). Since I wasn’t hostess at the Funtastic KidZone party, I realize I could be simplifying matters. However, it sure seemed like a great place to throw a party.

When we got there, I mentioned the party to the front desk and they quickly checked my daughter’s name off from a list of the party-going guests. Then we were ushered into the area in the back of the KidZone that is allocated to parties. The party space provides tables and chairs and allows food to be brought in from the outside. We had space for all the presents and three tables with multiple chairs for the food and the guests. While we ended up needing to vacate that back section/party room after a couple of hours, the kids used the play structures all afternoon.

For anyone interested in throwing a party here, I came across these two pricing options on the Funtasic KidZone instagram page:

My plans for next time…

The only downside I see to the Funtastic KidZone is that the seating isn’t great for adults. I’m 5’9″ and mostly legs (does this make me sound very model-esque? I assure you I am not). The “mostly legs” issue meant that in addition to being very uncomfortable, sitting on the balance beam-looking waiting chairs caused my legs to constantly be in the way of others. I spent two hours trying to constantly contort my legs so that people could get by me.

Therefore, next time I go I’m bringing the entire family. I realize that sounds just like misery wanting company, but hear me out! I would love a chance to get to investigate the rest of the mall or find a place to grab a quick bite to eat. With my husband in tow, one parent could be in the KidZone for an hour or so while the other gets to enjoy some alone time, and then we could switch. Happy kids, happy wife, fed husband. Sounds like a golden plan to me!

Slide Fun!

Hawaii Girl Travels…

Check out Destinations to see all the other places I’ve talked about. For other posts about Oahu, read up about my experience at Tea at 1024 as well as our experiences at Aulani’s Painted Sky and Aulani’s Pau Hana Room and Menehune Adventure Trails.

Baby Shark Concert: How This Grinch Got on Board with the Phenomenon

Unpopular opinion, especially from someone that writes a family-centric travel blog, but I don’t covet everything “baby”. I won’t ooh and ahh over a stranger’s baby. I’ve never told my kids it was “din-din” time or ask if they want a “baba” of “wawa”. It just isn’t me. So when I heard that Baby Shark Concert was coming to Hawaii, my initial thought was to grimace. I hadn’t even introduced Baby Shark to my daughter when it first got popular (my mom did, however). Needless to say, as Hawaii parents everywhere scrambled to get tickets, I didn’t even bother to look up showtimes.

The Baby Shark Concert

Then one day while I was at a cheerleading competition for my cousin’s kid, the Baby Shark concert got brought up. My cousin was regaling us with stories about all these people she knew that threw Baby Shark-themed birthday parties. Listening to the phenomenon and discussing how many kids were obsessed with it made me realize that I was doing my kid an injustice by boycotting it. Just call me the Grinch whose heart grew three sizes in one day. I went home that night and bought tickets.

Coming to Hawaii!

Probably the coolest part about the concert was that it almost didn’t happen. Welcome to the downside of living in Hawaii. No two-day Amazon Prime shipping. Nor Chipotle, Olive Garden, or Trader Joes. No shipment of many bulky furniture items that are sold online. Nor a stop on the Hamilton tour. And no Baby Shark concert. (I do realize that no one is going to feel too sorry for me #Hawaiiproblems.)

However, my favorite local magazine (Honolulu Family) teamed up with the creators of Baby Shark to bring the concert here. Well, they were able to bring part of the concert to Oahu in any case. My understanding is that the full Baby Shark concert is actually two hours long. Dubbed the Baby Shark Mini-Show, the Honolulu Concert was only going to run for 1 hour. My tiny, little Grich heart really appreciated the decreased show time when deciding whether or not to bite the bullet and purchase tickets. I figured I could handle 1 hour of just about any concert. And with that, tickets were bought.

The Baby Shark Mini-Show

Let the show begin!

Since I purchased the tickets at the last minute, we ended up in the nose bleed section of the Blaisdell Concert Hall. It didn’t seem to make a difference to Emily. She downed her blue popcorn, hugged her new Mama Shark stuffed animal (because everything she owns needs to be pink) and waved her light stick. And that was before the Baby Shark Concert even started.

Max and Ruby Show

The Baby Shark Mini-Show was broken down into 30 minutes of Max and Ruby, a 15-minute intermission and 30 minutes of Baby Shark and Pinkfong. The Max and Ruby part of the show included big rabbits jumping around the stage with a mouse singing children songs. I thought Emily knew who Max and Ruby were by her participation in the songs. She didn’t, but she still thought they were wonderful. And then (after the intermission) came Pinkfong to introduce the star of the show, Baby Shark.

How was it?

You know what? It actually was really awesome. First Pinkfong taught the audience the hand motions to Baby Shark (which this blogger definitely needed a lesson on). And then THE song started, sing-along style with the cartoon and lyrics behind the dancers onstage. After Baby Shark, the group of singers/dancers continued on with Penguins Attention (my personal favorite) and Jungle Boogie. (There was also a dinosaur song I wasn’t able to find online.) And then because the Pinkfong crew knew their audience, they threw in a super-fast remix version of Baby Shark to round out the show. Emily walked out of there super sad that it was over. And I walked out super thankful that I had sucked up my reservations and bought us tickets.

We are ready for the concert to start

As for my level of enjoyment, I maaaayyyy have been singing Baby Shark all day at work the next day. Just think of me as the Grinch singing with all the Whos in Whoville.

A tip on what age of children would like the Baby Shark Concert?

Based on the crowd at the concert, Emily may be at the older end of the Baby Shark fanbase spectrum. However, Leo is definitely too young for it. I was shocked to see so many of the under 1 crowd in attendance. It’s not that bringing a baby would be frowned upon at this concert. Quite the opposite. There was so much laughing and (happy) screaming going on throughout the concert, a baby would fit right in. I’m just not sure the baby would be able to make it through the concert.

I took a special interest in watching the groups that had babies. Truthfully, I was feeling a little guilty for leaving Leo at home and was interested in seeing how the kids his age handled the concert. I watched as one by one, those families left, often before the Pinkfong section even began. No matter how cute the songs were, those babies were NOT happy to be stuck in those laps/seats for an extended period of time.

What’s next for Baby Shark?

While Hawaii readers have missed the boat, for all you mainland inhabitants, there is still time. Here is a link to the tour for the Baby Shark show. Go for it! You’ll be happy you did!

Hawaii Girl Travels…

Check out Destinations to see all the other places I’ve talked about. Click here for our experience at Aulani’s Painted Sky and Aulani’s Pau Hana Room and Menehune Adventure Trails. For other posts about Oahu experiences, read up about my experience at Tea at 1024.

The Pau Hana Room at Disney’s Aulani: A Treasure Chest of Fun

One of the coolest (although perhaps underrated) things about Disney’s Aulani Resort was the Pau Hana Room. Located on the first floor of the Ewa tower, the Pau Hana Room is right across the bridge from the Waikolohe Stream and close to one of the main spots for Disney Character Meet and Greets.

Pau Hana Room

DVD Rentals, Board Games and Books

While you can’t stream Disney movies nonstop from your hotel room there is a way to have a relaxing night in with your favorite childhood cartoons. The Pau Hana room is stocked full of DVDs. They are available to rent for free to watch on the DVD player located in your room.

The collection of DVDs was impressive. Of course, as can be expected, there were multiple copies of Star Wars and Marvel movies for older viewers. However, they also carried copies of movies for the younger crowd, such as the introductory story to Elena of Avalor. After a long day at the pool, we spent one of our nights eating takeout and watching a rented Elena of Avalor DVD. Emily said it was her favorite thing about our vacation. (Don’t even get me started on how aggravating that was to hear… we can watch movies at home kid! Hmph!)

We only rented DVDs but I certainly looked longingly at their board game and book collections. I imagined the day when my kids would be old enough to enjoy them as well.

Pau Hana DVD Inventory

Arts and Crafts

The Pau Hana Room includes arts and crafts for people to work on throughout the day. Kids and grownups alike can stop in whenever they like to work on these daily projects. However, there are also special projects, such as Aulani’s popular t-shirt stamping, that require advanced sign-ups. On the night we rented a movie to watch in our room, they had several Halloween crafts to work on. Emily and I ended up staying at the Pau Hana Room for close to an hour decorating various pumpkins.

Daily ‘Iwa (Newsletter)

Dorky confession time alert. My favorite thing about cruise ships is when the daily activities newsletter comes out. I race back to my room after dinner and quickly begin plotting out the next day. I know, I need help. Imagine my excitement when I found out that Disney’s Aulani Resort also had a daily newsletter, called the ‘Iwa. However, it was a little harder to obtain this newsletter than on cruise ships. The hotel does not leave daily copies of the ‘Iwa in the guests’ rooms. While you can get them at the front desk or online, the easiest place to get the ‘Iwa is in the Pau Hana Room.

The ‘Iwa is important to use because some of the activities that Aulani offers are so popular that you need to stand in line just to sign up for the class first thing in the morning. The classes listed didn’t seem to be activities that my kids were old enough to appreciate. However, I am very excited to try them out during future visits.

Menehune Adventures Trail

Circa 2012, my husband and I were living in Connecticut. Aulani had recently opened so when we traveled back to ‘Oahu for a visit, we took Bryan’s grandmother to Aulani for lunch. My biggest memory from that visit was watching kids and parents alike using an iPad to complete a scavenger hunt. Fast forward seven years and we were the kids and parents on the scavenger hunt, known as the Menehune Adventure Trails. Based on what I saw back in 2012, Aulani made a lot of changes to the scavenger hunt. I appreciated that they were keeping it fresh for returning guests.

There are two different trails that guests can choose between. The first trail, known as the Maka’ala Lobby Trail, is approximately 30 minutes long and goes through the lobby. This trail is also open the longest, running from 10 AM – 8 PM daily. The second trail is known as the Waikolohe Valley Trail. It takes approximately 1 hour to complete and takes guests around the pool. Since a lot of the stops along the way look a lot better in the dark, this trail is only open from 5 PM – 8 PM.

IPad’s that are needed for the Menehune Adventure trails are lent out on an hourly basis. After that hour, if you are still on your “hunt” you need to return to the Pau Hana room. The friendly staff will happily unlock the iPad for you and you can go back to your quest. What’s also nice is if you need to take a break and return to the scavenger hunt at a later time, your progress will be saved and you can pick up where you left off.

Menehune Trails Adventure

Our Attempt at the Menehune Adventure Trails – Indoor Edition (Maka’ala Lobby Trail)

After Emily’s makeover, we had some time to kill before our dinner reservations. We ended up making our way over to the Pau Hana room, obtaining iPad’s, and completing the Maka’ala Lobby Trail. For people pressed for time, the indoor Menehune Adventure Trail was a great option. Emily and I took our time and we were still done in less than 30 minutes. The Maka’ala Lobby trail would also be the perfect way to spend a rainy day (since its completely indoors).

The iPad provides a storyline as to why you are going on the scavenger hunt as well as some Hawaiian lore and history. To be honest, the storyline held no interest for my daughter. I myself, however, am a history-loving nerd. If I had been doing the trail by myself I would have thoroughly enjoyed the backstory and lessons. While the iPad didn’t hold Emily’s attention, she was enthralled with the stops on the trail. Aulani had built high-tech events into the hotel for the stops on the trail. Geckos danced in a light. Art paintings had shooting starts and moving waves. Photographs moved and talked. It was like stepping foot into Harry Potter’s world.

Helpful hint: I think the hardest spot to find on the Maka’ala Lobby trail is the photograph in the souvenir shop. There are photos everywhere so it is hard to find the correct one. However, the salespeople working there are more than willing to point you in the right direction if you can’t figure out which photo it is.

Our Attempt at the Menehune Adventure Trails – Outdoor Edition (Waikolohe Valley Trail)

Since we finished the Maka’ala Lobby Trail right before 5 PM and still had about 45 minutes to spare before our dinner reservations, we decided to head back to the Pau Hana room to swap out our old iPad for one that could complete the outdoor Waikolohe Valley Trail.

Unfortunately, we never completed this trail. Between getting the new iPad, waiting for Bryan and Leo to join us, and struggling a little bit to find the right spots, we didn’t finish before it was time for dinner. Once dinner was over, the kids were exhausted and we called it a night. I wish we had started this trail one day earlier. Then we could have used to option of returning the next day to finish the trail, with our progress saved from the previous day. However, since it was our last night in the hotel, by 5 PM the next day (when the Waikolohe Valley Trail was open) we had already checked out of the hotel and returned home.

From what we did get to see of this trail, however, it was magical. While we struggled a little more on the outdoor trail, the pay off was also more fun. The spots we reached gave us the ability to control fire, draw the outline of a menehune and lots more.

Menehune Adventure Trails

In Summary…

The Pau Hana room was a welcome surprise with so many things to do there. As we didn’t discover it until halfway through our trip, we’ll definitely take better advantage of it the next time we stay at Aulani.

Hawaii Girl Travels…

Check out Destinations to see all the other places I’ve talked about. Click here for our experience at Aulani’s Painted Sky. For other posts about Oahu experiences, read up about my experience at Tea at 1024. Want more Disney? Click here to learn about Disneyland’s newest ride Rise of the Resistance!

Painted Sky: Disney Aulani’s Dream Come True for Princesses in Training

Clothing options at Aulani's the Painted Sky

A couple of days after we returned home from our extended weekend stay at Aulani I asked my five-year-old daughter, “what is the number one thing people should do if they stay at Aulani?” Without hesitation, she said it was her makeover at Painted Sky (Disney’s Hawaiian take on their beloved Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique). I asked my daughter, “why?” and she answered, “because everyone should get to feel that wonderful!”

Booking my daughter’s appointment at Painted Sky was the first thing I did after making hotel reservations. Therefore, I’m not quite sure how far in advance an appointment needs to be booked, but please note that Painted Sky seemed very popular. I hadn’t even intended for my daughter to know about Painted Sky until it was time for her appointment. However, girls everywhere were walking around Aulani with their hair did, makeup shimmering and costumes on. With all that “free advertisement” for Painted Sky, it didn’t take my daughter too long to ask if she could get a “princess makeover” as well.

Package Options – The Offerings

The packages for girls come with hair styling, makeup, a costume and accessories. The packages for boys swap out the makeup option for a temporary tattoo. Most of these packages are $150, although some run higher in costs while a couple run lower. A lot of the pricing options depend upon the type of costume included in the makeover package. The most impressive package includes a beautiful ball gown and a starting price tag of $645.

In addition, Aulani offers a couple packages that offer a little more in terms of activities. The first option is the Motunui package. This package is offered on Thursday and Saturday mornings from 9:00 AM to 11:30 AM. For an additional $25, Moana will stop by Painted Sky for a visit. Following the visit, the kids can head over to Aunty’s Beach House for further activities.

The second option is the “Beyond the Painted Sky” experience. This package is offered on Sunday and Wednesday at 12:00 PM and 2:30 PM. For an additional $55, kids can experience their makeover while the salon is transformed into a Magical Rainbow Garden. The kids will also create a craft and march in the Rainbow Wishes Parade with a couple of Disney Characters. Emily’s appointment ended up being right after one of the Beyond the Painted Sky experiences. It was a nice surprise to be able to see the rainbow garden and watch the start of the parade. I’m not sure if the package is worth the $55 splurge, however I did notice that there were a lot of huge smiles on the faces of the children… and their camera-toting parents.

Package Options – What Everyone Else (Seems To) Select

Based on the amount of mini-wayfinders walking around Aulani, I assume that the biggest seller is the aforementioned Motunui makeover. In addition to getting a visit from Moana, Painted Sky’s Motunui package also comes with a Moana costume and accessories. However, I decided to go down the road less traveled and opted for a mermaid costume instead.

Truth be told, Emily has been obsessed over Moana for years. We bought a knock-off Moana costume from Amazon and had Emily dress like Moana for her 4th birthday party.

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Moana Costume

A couple months later, Emily no longer fit her her birthday outfit but wanted to be Moana again for Halloween. We ended up purchasing an “authentic” Disney version of the wayfinder costume.

Moana Costume

Needless to say, I didn’t think we needed any more Moana costumes. Especially considering the above Moana costume is the exact version provided as part of the Motunui package.

Package Options – What I Selected

Emily’s new Disney obsession is The Little Mermaid, so I opted for Painted Sky’s Waikolohe Mermaid Swim Package. The swim package came with a mermaid bikini swimsuit and long tail-like swim skirt. I loved the swimsuit / costume but since I wanted to go out to dinner after she had her makeover, I packed her still-fitting Moana costume to wear that evening.

This ended up working out really well. Since Emily is probably only a couple months away from fitting into the next clothing size, I purchased the swimsuit 1 size too big for her so she could wear it for the next year. Therefore, Emily couldn’t really wear the over-sized swimsuit yet. It was nice that she could change into something that fit her once the makeover was over.

Painted Sky: After Photo Shoot

Package Options – Crunching the Numbers and What I’m Going to Try Next Time

The Waikolohe Mermaid Swim Package is $150 before taxes and tip. I don’t think Aulani readily shares what the breakout is of their packages until you receive your invoice. Therefore, I’m listing my itemized invoice below to give you a better idea of where the cost is attributed to:

  • $75 for hair and makeup
  • $50 swimsuit
  • $12 sun-changing plumeria necklace
  • $10 sun-changing plumeria bracelet
  • $3 miscellaneous service fee
  • Automatic 20% tip added for the hair and makeup (i.e. $15 on top of the $150)

The first thing I noticed was the automatic 20% tip on the $75 hair and makeup. Phew! I didn’t know I would get to see the monetary split between the service and the clothes / accessories. It was a welcome charge as I had been so worried about guessing at what amount I should tip.

However, the second thing I noticed was that the swimsuit and accessories cost over $70. Don’t get me wrong, the Waikolohe Mermaid swimsuit and sun-changing necklace and bracelet were really nice. However, Emily’s closet at home is overstuffed with Disney princess costumes. Costumes that were purchased only when the Disney store was having a huge sale (like her $30 Moana costume). The last thing my daughter needed was a $70 costume.

Therefore, the next time we go to Painted Sky I am going to ask if I can just make an appointment for hair and makeup. Unfortunately, I didn’t see anything offering hair and makeup as a standalone service at Aulani. However, the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique Crown Package in Disneyland offers just that, for the same price of $75. Assuming my plan works, I will just bring an extra costume with me and save the additional $75.

My daughter’s experience at Painted Sky

We arrived 15 minutes early, per Painted Sky’s instructions, and got to see the end of the “Beyond the Painted Sky” experience. After the kids from that event left on their parade, we were ushered into the waiting room. Once inside Painted Sky, we were able to scope out all the costumes and clothing available for purchase. We were also given a “menu”. In addition to a listing of the package options, the menu also included photos of hairstyles to choose from. I have a really hard time braiding Emily’s hair but constantly am putting it in a bun for her various dance classes. Therefore, Emily jumped at the chance of getting a braid done professionally and opted for the “lu’au bound” style.

Hair style options at Painted Sky

Right at my daughter’s appointment time we were beckoned into the fitting room to try on the mermaid swimsuit. It takes a LOT to make my daughter speechless, but just getting to put on her new swimsuit in the beautiful fitting room awed her.

Dressing Room at Painted Sky

After Emily was changed, it was time for the makeover. Typically a wiggly, fidgeting machine, Emily handled her hair and makeup session like a champ. Meanwhile, I was frozen in shock as she morphed into a teenager in front of my eyes. Along with her new hair and makeup, she started crossing her legs and initiated a conversation with the stylist about her school. (Fast-forward to the end of the night and there was a lot of eye-rolling (Emily) and tearful “where did my baby go?” comments (yours truly)).

Makeover at Aulani's Painted Sky

As Emily got to the end of her makeover, I noticed a staff member lowering a backdrop against a wall of the salon. I assumed it was for another group, but it turned out to be used for “after” photos. Emily LOVED it!

Booking the appointment… lessons learned

I booked Emily’s appointment without really having a plan. In fact, I initially tried to schedule the appointment for 9 AM. Thank goodness the salon stylist was much smarter than me. She double checked if I really wanted an appointment that early. She reminded me that my daughter wouldn’t be able to use the pool after the appointment, unless I was okay with her makeover being washed away.

Instead, the salon stylists recommended a 4 PM appointment so that we could go straight to the Ka Wa’a Luau after that. I didn’t have dinner plans yet so I went with her suggestion. However, we ended up opting for the character dining option at Makahiki, which came with a slightly later seating.

Therefore, if I schedule another Painted Sky makeover session, I would get my dining options set up first and then back into the appointment time in order to maximize Emily’s time at the pool. The rule at Painted Sky is that you need to show up with clean, dry and detangled hair. Our entire day at the pool that Sunday was dictated by Emily’s appointment and she (okay all of us) would have loved to spend more time floating around that wonderful, lazy river.

Twinning with Moana after Painted Sky

Hawaii Girl Travels…

Check out Destinations to see all the other places I’ve talked about. Click here for our experience at Aulani’s Pau Hana Room and the Menehune Adventure Trails. For other posts about Oahu experiences, read up about my experience at Tea at 1024.

Tea at 1024: The Perfect Place to Sneak Away for an Afternoon of Fantastic Hats, Relaxation and of course, Tea

I am a huge afternoon tea fan. Huge. I try to sneak in an afternoon tea session any chance I get. The tea service at Tea at 1024 is one of the best places I’ve visited. So, if you come to the islands and want to take a break from the hustle and bustle of Waikiki or get a little too sunburned and want to try something new, give Tea at 1024 a try. You won’t be disappointed.

How to Dress

No, there is no dress code here. You’ll feel just as comfortable sitting around in shorts as you will in a nice party dress. There are, however, things to wear once you get to Tea at 1024. As soon as you enter you will be told that you can pick out your own hat. Easter bonnets and fascinators of every shape, size, and color adorn the many stands located around the restaurant. There are also boas that you can rock as well. As someone that dreams of attending either the Kentucky Derby or a UK event with a fascinator attached to my head, this part of the experience is a dream come true for me.

The second thing you’ll need to do once your headpiece is sorted is to choose your own teacup. This brings us to…

The Tea

The tea menu offered at Tea at 1024 is pretty extensive, including some very interesting flavors. For example, the last time I went I opted for one of their white teas called Ice Wine. It was very tasty but didn’t come with alcohol… haha. Well, at least I find myself hilarious.

Tea at 1024

If you order the kid’s (or “keiki”) afternoon tea option, it comes with hot chocolate. My daughter doesn’t like chocolate at all so I knew she would balk at an entire cup of chocolaty goodness. However, Tea at 1024 is very accommodating. You are able to order tea instead of hot chocolate if that is the preference. The last time we were there, my daughter and her friends opted to share a pot of Strawberry Green Tea. I was a little worried about how the tea would go over with a bunch of 5-year-olds, but those kids drained their entire pot and asked for another round.

The Food

Salad and Sandwiches

Starter Salad at Tea at 1024

The afternoon tea service kicks off with a fresh and delicious plate of berries, feta, and spinach, before moving on to the real star of the show: the tower of sandwiches and pastries.

The one thing I like the most about Tea at 1024 is their sandwich to pastry ratio. I love love love afternoon tea services but I don’t have much of a sweet tooth. I really go for the tea and sandwiches. Usually, I end up disappointed when the food arrives and two-thirds of plate is filled with pastries with the mini sandwiches thrown in as an afterthought. Tea at 1024 is awesome in that they heap on the sandwiches, which are usually very interesting, to say the least. Along with the smoked salmon or cucumber sandwiches that frequent many tea services, this place also provides sandwiches filled with shredded cheese and pimentos, braised pork or curried chicken, just to name a few.

Kids Tray at Tea at 1024

Additionally, the keiki food options appeal to kids’ palates, with sandwich varieties such as peanut butter and jelly or egg salad. The sandwiches also appeal aesthetically as well, with pink and purple bread slices cut into little teapot shapes.

Pastries

While I could take or leave most of the sweet treats offered at any afternoon tea, there is one pastry I enjoy: scones covered in Devonshire cream. Okay, if I’m being honest, I really just like the Devonshire cream, but I feel it would look weird to not eat it on a scone. Many places I try scones at are tasteless, requiring heaps of Devonshire cream to cover up the dryness. However, the scones at Tea at 1024 are moist and therefore a wonderful accompaniment to the delicious cream topping. Meanwhile, the restaurant is definitely not chintzy, offering an entire bowl to its patron, half-filled with Devonshire cream and half-filled with jelly.

Throwing a Party

I’ve never thrown a party here but I’ve been to a couple as a guest, including a 5-year-old birthday party that my daughter and I attended a couple of weekends ago. In addition to the tea, the party hostess also had a makeup and hairstyling center. Princess Belle even stopped by for a visit. While all of that needed to be scheduled and booked outside of Tea at 1024, it was nice to see all the different options that could be done in conjunction with the afternoon tea. Another party I attended was for adults only. We were able to play baby-shower games and open presents at the location. So for any of my Hawaii-based readers out there, the sky’s the limit!

Dressing up at Tea at 1024

Parking and location

Tea at 1024 is located in downtown Honolulu. This means parking will be a problem. The restaurant offers validation at the Chinatown Gateway Plaza parking structure. With validation, parking will cost only $3. This is a great deal for downtown! However, the last time I went, I was able to find street parking (free on Sunday when I was there).

Hawaii Girl Travels…

Check out Destinations to see all the other places I’ve talked about. Want to read about how I gave the Baby Shark Mini-Show Two Thumbs Up? If you need another amazing place to visit with your kid, check out my review on the Funtastic KidZone in Pearlridge.

The Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze: The Best Way To Kick Off the Holiday Season

Along the mighty Hudson, in a forest and through a maze, lies an enchanted kingdom called The Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze. – Excerpt from “A Journey through The Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze”

Everyone should get to experience kicking off the festive season by visiting the Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze. Started as a local celebration in 2005, the event now includes 7,000 lit-up pumpkins on the grounds of the 18th century Van Cortlandt Manor in Croton-on-Hudson. The Blaze also includes synchronized lighting and an original, hypnotic soundtrack. While I couldn’t picture wanting to raise my kids anywhere other than Hawaii, the east coast really spoiled me in terms of amazing experiences. There were so many awe-inspiring events just a car ride away. The Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze is certainly at the top of that “amazing experiences” list.

Jack O'Lantern Blaze

Storm’s a-comin’!

I first heard about the Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze in the fall of 2011. I jumped at the chance to get tickets. Unfortunately, to the dismay of children everywhere in Metro-NY, a fluke snowstorm hit the area right before Halloween. All the pumpkins from the Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze were destroyed. Halloween was officially canceled that year as was the Blaze (we were refunded the money for our tickets).

When fall 2012 came around I bought tickets again. I assumed there was no way that a fluke storm would hit the area two years in a row. For those of you that didn’t live on the eastern seaboard at that time, I’d like to introduce you to a little something called Hurricane Sandy. Talk about bad timing for kids. For the second year in a row, Halloween was officially canceled. I assumed the Blaze was canceled as well. It was only when I tried to get my tickets refunded that I realized the Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze was still running. How could that be? Volunteers secured all 7,000 pumpkins in a safe spot before Sandy. Then, they re-organized everything back outside after the hurricane left. How amazing is that? A hurricane was barreling down on Croton-on-Hudson and people saved the pumpkins!

That year, Bryan and I kicked off what would become our annual trek to the Blaze. We grabbed a bite to eat in one of the only restaurants that had electricity after the hurricane. Then, it was off to Van Cortlandt Manor.

The Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze: The Details

Most of the dates and times for the Blaze sell out in advance so make sure you buy tickets early.

Stalks of corn

After finding parking in the ample lot of the Van Cortlandt Manor, visitors start their journey by making their way into tents selling holiday merchandise and food. Lots and lots of food. There are lots of items to nosh on, including soup, chili, donuts, pumpkin pie and my favorite… hot apple cider. Admittance is done on a timed basis in 30-minute intervals. Visitors wait in the aforementioned tents and enter the Blaze when their time is called. Note that the Blaze will undoubtedly be packed with a continuously long line. This long line is actually perfect since most visitors will spend their time in open-mouthed awe, gaping at the amazing carvings laid out in front of them.

The Time of the Dinosaurs

Pumpkin Palooza

When I was buying tickets for the first time, a part of me thought ‘how many traditional pumpkin-carved faces do people really need to see?’ I mean, 7,000 certainly seemed excessive. But as you can see already, they aren’t the normal carvings that you do at home with triangle eyes and a couple of teeth. Here in the Hudson Valley, they have recreated dinosaurs, scarecrows, insects, monsters, you name it. Even famous local and international landmarks abound.

According to the Hudson Valley website, “more than 1,000 volunteers help to scoop, carve, and light the pumpkins and every single jack o’ lantern is hand-carved on site by [a] team of professional artists.” While they do use some artificial pumpkins in their displays, each pumpkin is carved by one of the professional artists. And they still use real pumpkins as well. The artists end up carving throughout the festival in order to replace about a thousand pumpkins every week, according to an article in Westchester Magazine.

The last time we visited the Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze, our plans to move back to Hawaii were already in the works. I’m glad that we went to the Blaze knowing that it might be our last time, because it really helped us to soak in all the amazing pumpkin designs… and also prompted me into shopping for souvenirs. “A Journey through The Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze” by Suzanne Christine has become one of the family’s favorite Halloween children’s books.

New this year to the Blaze

Since I don’t want to be writing about things that aren’t still relevant, I did some research as to how the Jack O’Lantern Blaze is going this year. It turns out it has become even more amazing. They have created a twenty-foot working pumpkin carousel. Excuse me while I make plans to spend the Halloween festivities in New York next year. Even better? The designer of this one-of-a-kind carousel is William Dentzel, a descendant of one of the first carousel makers in America. Crazy right?

Jack O'Lantern Blaze
Photo Credit: Historic Hudson Valley

For all who enter this kingdom, it is bound to delight and amaze, beckoning return journeys through The Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze. – Excerpt from “A Journey through The Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze”

Hawaii Girl Travels…

Check out Destinations to see all the other places I’ve talked about. For other New York City-related information, read about my Brooklyn weekend getaway, an amazing day at Spa Castle, our 6-day trip back to NYC with an almost-three-year-old, and my recommendations of can’t miss things to see and do in New York City and the best places to eat in NYC if you don’t mind a hefty price tag.

The New York Renaissance Faire: A Bygone Era Worth Visiting

The most magical event takes place every August and September in Sterling Forest, New York: the New York Renaissance Faire. A recreation of a 16th-century Elizabethan village, you can spend your entire day watching plays and strolling musicians, cheer on your favorite knight in a joust or try your hand at archery. And don’t forget about the mead. You can drink a lot of mead.

I was introduced to this fascinating world of renaissance fairs due to an episode of The Girls Next Door (I used to be obsessed with that reality TV series). After seeing how much fun Hugh Hefner and his girlfriends had, I started looking into potential renaissance fairs near me and became determined to attend one. I even added it to my bucket list as something to do. When I found out that Sterling Forest was only an hour away from us and held one of the biggest renaissance fairs in the country, I knew I had to visit.

What to expect at the New York Renaissance Faire

As soon as you enter the gates of the Faire, it is like you’ve stepped back in time. Set within 65 acres of beautiful forest, the New York Renaissance Faire features countless performances, crafts, and shopping experiences. Maps of the Faire are sold at the entrance for $2 each or if you would like to save money, you can plan ahead and print out a copy from their website.

2019 NY Renaissance Faire Map
Map courtesy of the Renaissance Faire website

It’s true that the admission costs are nothing to laugh over, but that cost will let you see all the performances for free and the acting is amazing. They never break character. There are so many things to do and see that it’s worth taking a look at the schedule ahead of time to plan your day out appropriately. Even if you play it by ear, like Bryan and I did most of the time, it is fascinating just walking around the forest. There are so many things to discover and see, the New York Renaissance Faire has it all.

NY Renaissance Faire

What to wear to the New York Renaissance Faire

The first year we went to the Faire we dressed in normal street clothes. After all, to go all out and get a costume would be so geeky, right? Well, maybe it is, but I felt so left out. I wanted to be one of the medieval ladies, pirate wrenches, or fairies that were wandering about. Costumes of all kinds were there. There was even a group dressed up like Doctor Who, Amy and Rory, which was a separate group from the gentleman that dressed up like the Fourth Doctor. Needless to say, I’ve been to the Faire numerous times since our first visit, and I went in costume every time.

The last year we went, Emily came with us, pink fairy costume and all.

While anything goes as it relates to costumes, keep in mind that there are special theme weekends such as a Heroes & Villians weekend, Pirate weekend, and Celtic weekend.

What to do at the New York Renaissance Faire

There are so many different things to do that you can spend more than a day here. Musicians serenade crowds with their folk tunes. Musical and comedic plays are performed throughout the day as well. My favorite was the Washing Well Wrenches that typically performed on the Pageant Wagon Stage.

You can try your hand at medieval games of skill. The most popular one was probably archery. I thought I could channel Katniss trying to survive in the arena, but I was horrible. A very sweet, toothless, elderly gentlemen taught me how to at least hit the bag…. Though not the bulls-eye.

NY Renaissance Faire

You can also throw ninja stars, knives, and axes. See the ax closest to the bulls-eye? That was mine! I got the ax champion award of our group. (That’s the sticker I’m pointing at in the second picture.) No one else beside Bryan and me even got it lodged on the board. Yup, we are awesome.

There is medieval pageantry, including the arrival of the Queen, jousting tournaments, and parades.

Amongst their more interesting events are lessons on hawking and throwing tomatoes at a clown that will insult you.

And of course, no renaissance fair is complete without maypole dancing. Note to self: add “participate in a maypole dance” to my Bucket List.

NY Renaissance Faire

What to buy at the New York Renaissance Faire

If you don’t want to buy a costume, you can always rent one for the day at the Faire. Additionally, there are shops that sell armor, glasses, candles, soaps, jewelry, you name it. You can even see a glass-blowing demonstration.

What to eat (and drink) at the New York Renaissance Faire

The food, oh the food. Everything you can imagine at a typical fair and more can be found at the Renaissance Faire. There was, pizza, chicken fingers, burgers, grilled cheese sandwiches, french fries, fried cheese, jerky and gyros just to name a few. And of course turkey legs.

Several pubs are scattered throughout the park serving all kids of delectable treats, but I was partial to one drink more than others every time we went there…. mead!

The one thing I’ve never been brave enough to try while at the Renaissance Faire was the BBQ Sundae. Although, I guess it is just a really efficient way to eat BBQ.

Keep in mind that food tends to be expensive and typically only cash payment options exist. However, you are not allowed to bring in outside food, so either do not go hungry or prepared to spend your money.

Where to park at the New York Renaissance Faire

Get to the New York Renaissance Faire early. Parking is free (unless you want the preferred $15 parking) but fills up fast.

Hawaii Girl Travels…

Check out Destinations to see all the other places I’ve talked about. For other New York City related information, read about my Brooklyn weekend getaway, an amazing day at Spa Castle, our 6-day trip back to NYC with an almost-three-year-old, and my recommendations of can’t miss things to see and do in New York City and the best places to eat in NYC if you don’t mind a hefty price tag.

Our 6-Day New York City Itinerary with a Toddler

When we packed up to move across the country a couple years ago, we knew there was going to be A LOT of things we were going to miss about Connecticut and New York: our friends, the food, the cheaper travel options, heck even the weather (some of the time). But we were shocked to find out just how much we actually missed Manhattan. Sex and The City used to call NYC the fifth lady of the group. It took moving to realize just how much I had fallen in love with the city as well. So we decided to head back to the east coast for a vacation. Below you will find our 6-day foodie loving, toddler bringing New York City itinerary.

Our New York City Itinerary: A Summary

  • Flight from Honolulu to JFK with a 12 hour layover in Seattle!
  • Stay at the Novotel Hotel near Times Square.
  • Enjoy fancy-schmancy dinners at Sushi Yasuda, Per Se, Momofuku Ko and Eleven Madison Park.
  • Eat at all the places we miss going to now that we are in Hawaii, including Ippudo, Pick a Bagel, Chipotle, The Melting Pot, the Halal Guys and dirty water hot dogs
  • Visit Central Park and enjoy play dates, a carriage ride for the whole group, exploring the zoo and hunting for statues.
  • Take Emily to the American Museum of Natural History.
  • Hang out with friends in White Plains (NY), Hoboken (NJ) and Stamford (CT).
  • Return flight from JFK to Honolulu with another 12 hour layover in Seattle.

The Details

Travel Day(s)

Getting out of Dodge Honolulu

Our trip back east started out with a red-eye flight out of Honolulu. Here is my best tip for air travel with a toddler. Book a red-eye flight. These flights were amazing for Emily (and I’m hoping for Leo as well). Toddlers are old enough to have a regular sleep schedule. Therefore, there is a good chance your tyke will conk out for the majority of the flight. However, toddlers are also old enough to be super restless when they are up. There’s nothing like a 5+ hour flight with an awake toddler to make you regret not opting for a flight with a guaranteed sleep time included.

Our NYC Itinerary - Leaving HNL

One of the coolest things happened to us before we even left Honolulu. I’ll admit I have a love/hate relationship with TSA. I love that they are just trying to do their job to keep everyone safe. I just hate that they usually aren’t very pleasant to me while they do that. However, on the night of our red-eye, TSA made Emily’s night (if not year). You see that gold sticker on Emily’s shirt? It identifies her as a “Junior TSA Officer”. When we got to security, an agent took one look at her before quickly promoting her from traveler to officer. Emily took her new role very seriously, making sure that the whole family got through security quickly and quietly. What a change from the usual pushing and prodding that tended to happen whenever she had to walk through the metal detector / scanner. Thank you TSA!

Our crazy 12-hour layover in the Centurion Lounge

My family and I spent both of our long layovers camped out in American Express’s answer to luxury airport lounges. Read more about my experience and my thoughts on whether the Platinum Card is worth the $550 annual fee based on its access to the Centurion Lounge.

I don’t think I will ever spend that much time in the Centurion Lounge ever again. However, the most amazing thing happened to us during our layover in the Centurion Lounge. It wasn’t the bells and whistles that came with the “luxury” accommodations. It was an older gentleman exiting the lounge carrying a dozen roses. He stopped all of a sudden, did a 180-degree turn, walked to Emily and handed her a rose. The gentleman quickly turned and walked away without saying a word.

Our NYC Itinerary - A Rose in the Centurion Lounge

Day 1 in New York City

1. Check into the Novotel Hotel

Twenty-seven hours after we left our home we finally arrived in NYC and were ready to start our vacation. To be frank, I picked the Novotel hotel because it was a) the most cost effective option I could find in b) a great location (Times Square) with c) decent reviews. It had a nondescript street entrance for such a large hotel. However, once you got up to the second floor where the reception was, it was like stepping into a night club with its neon lighting and open area leading directly to the bar.

Novotel

In terms of location it was perfect for us. Located at 52nd and Broadway it took less than 10 minutes for us to walk to Central Park. As you’ll see below, we frequented Central Park ALL THE TIME. Since Times Square technically ends at 47th street, the Novotel hotel was still very close to one of the world’s busiest pedestrian areas and yet not smack dab in the middle of it.

2. Eat bagels and lox – the perfect NYC breakfast

The first year after I moved back to Honolulu, I couldn’t stomach the bagels. It just tasted so sub par to the amazing options in NYC. Nowadays, I have grown accustomed to Honolulu bagels and even have a favorite bagel location. However, I still made picking up a bagel and lox the first thing on our New York City Itinerary. We opted for Pick a Bagel on 8th Avenue but you really can’t go wrong no matter where you end up.

3. Wander through Times Square

Now that we were tourists instead of wannabe NYCers living in Connecticut, Times Square was one of our first stops. With no set plans until dinner we wandered through shops like Hershey Chocolate World, M&M’s World, the Disney Store and the Muji Store.

4. Kick off the week of fancy NYC dinners at Per Se… and Chipotle

Have those two places ever been linked together in the same sentence before? No? Good. I aim to be unique. Sad fact: Chipotle is not in Hawaii. We REALLY miss Chipotle. So there is probably a good chance you will be reading a lot about us visiting Chipotle whenever we travel to the mainland. Case in point, Bryan and Emily’s first dinner in NYC was take out from Chipotle. And now on to the fancy-schmancy stuff…

At first I shied away from posting too much about food on here. I’m a self proclaimed foodie but I did start a travel blog and not a restaurant review blog. However, Anthony Bourdain summarized my way of thinking the best, “food, culture, people and landscape are absolutely inseparable”. I do believe that finding amazing dining options is part of planning the perfect itinerary and typically spend hours researching favorite local establishments before our trips. I figured it would be a shame to cut that part out of my vacation recaps. And after all, eating in NYC was one of the main reasons for this vacation. Therefore you have been forewarned, there are a lot of food pictures to come, starting with my night out with my mom at Per Se.

NYC Itinerary: Per Se

Read my review on Per Se, both when we first went to visit the restaurant when they were ranked one of the best restaurants in the world, as well as how they are doing now.

Day 2 in New York City

1. Head to Norma’s for a decadent breakfast

One thing has always been on any New York City itinerary whenever our family came to visit. Go to Norma’s for a decadent breakfast. If money is no option to you, there is a lobster frittata with 10 oz of servuga caviar. All this can be had for the low, low cost of $2,000. Nope, that’s not a typo. But if you’d prefer to not walk out of breakfast a couple thousand poorer, my favorite options are the foie gras french toast or artychoked benedict.

2. Visit Central Park (Part 1)

I received a card from a family friend when my daughter was born. It said “I’m so excited for you to experience rediscovering the world through your daughter’s eyes”. That line has stuck with me ever since and was especially relatable during our times in Central Park. With a toddler in tow, of course Central Park was on my New York City itinerary… once. Turns out that Central Park is the most popular city park in America for a reason. One time at the park ended up not being enough for any of us and we spent the better part of the week discovering something new we had miss the day before.

I don’t know any other way to describe Central Park than to call it magical. An oasis in the middle of the concrete jungle that is Manhattan, Central Park is three avenues wide and stretches from 59th Street all the way up to 110th Street.  There are so many different places to see and explore, from playgrounds to the Bethesda Fountain, from Belvedere Castle to Strawberry Fields with its black and white Imagine mosaic.

We even became the ultimate tourists and took a horse drawn carriage!

NYC Itinerary: Central Park

3. Eat at Sushi Yasuda… named the best sushi restaurant in America (by me)

I wrote about my favorite sushi restaurant in my list of best restaurants to eat at in NYC. But I’ll shill for them again… (for FREE mind you) go eat there… you won’t regret it!

Best Restaurants in NYC - Sushi Yasuda

Day 3 in New York City

1. Lions and Tigers and Bears… and Mountain Lions at the American Museum of Natural History

When planning this trip, there were two places on my “must take Emily to” list for New York City: one was Central Park and the other was the American Museum of Natural History. Located on the upper west side of Manhattan, AMNH is one of the largest museums in the world. Its collection of artifacts is so great that only a small portion can be displayed at a time. When I was planning our stop here I pictured showing Emily one display after another. I would open up her mind to the vast world on display thanks to AMNH. But kids will be kids and Emily proved that toddlers and labored over itineraries do not often mix. She was so enamored with the animal displays (especially the mountain lion) that we spent most of our time there.

2. Visit Central Park (Part II)

Another great thing about AMNH? It’s across the street from Central Park. So of course our walk back to our hotel from the museum included a stroll through our favorite part of Manhattan.

3. Ellen’s Stardust Diner – a huge win for our little one

Need a place to take the little ones in your party? This place is it. My mom and Emily took the 1-minute walk from the Novotel Hotel to the famed Ellen’s Stardust Diner. Emily loved watching the future stars of Broadway serenading her while she ate. A little kitchy sure, but any musical loving fan will love it.

4. Filling our bellies at Momofuku Ko

While Emily and my mom hit up Ellen’s Stardust Diner, Bryan and I tracked down Momofuku Ko in its new and bigger location. See my discussion on the best places to eat at in NYC for my recap on our experience at Momofuku Ko. Want a spoiler? It was amazing!

Day 4 in New York City

1. Have a play date in… (you guessed it) Central Park

Once upon a time I was a 20-something year old and I had a friend that lived in Connecticut. We would do Connecticut things like go to soul cycle, drink in downtown Stamford, hop the train and drink in NYC, and grab coffee together. Then we both became 30-something year olds, popped out kids and moved away from Connecticut. But the stars aligned and she had moved to NYC for about a year and was still 1 month away from relocating to Miami when I went back to visit. So we grabbed coffee together (some things never change) and took our kids to Central Park.

Now, even before this vacation I had been to Central Park countless times before. However, I remained oblivious to the vast amount of playground structures until this trip. We only made it to the playgrounds in the southern section of the park and still felt like everywhere we turned was one more playground. Here is an extensive listing of playgrounds within all of Central Park.

2. Dinner at the world’s best restaurant – Eleven Madison Park

In 6 days of gorging myself, this was the only restaurant that I hadn’t been to before. Family and friends were singing EMP’s merits for years by this point and San Pellegrino had named this 3-Michelin Star Restaurant the best restaurant in the world. I was skeptical. I was actually cocky enough to think that there was no way that I didn’t already know about the best restaurant in New York. So we went to see what all the fuss was about. And you know what? I’m a big enough person to say when I’ve made a mistake. San Pellegrino, you knew what you were talking about. Read about my experience at EMP along with the other best restaurants in New York City.

3. Taking a (not quite) three-year-old to Broadway

When my mom decided to take Emily to a Broadway show I thought she was crazy. The closest Emily had come to sitting through a feature length performance before then was going to watch Finding Dory. We had to leave 45 minutes in when Emily got antsy. I couldn’t imagine the plan of taking Emily to a Broadway musical going well. But bless my generous mother, she bought them both tickets to Aladdin and decided to give it a try.

The results? They did have to leave at intermission, but not because of any worries that I had come up with. I thought Emily would get bored and want to walk around or that she would start talking loudly through the entire show. But from the moment the actors and actresses took the stage, they held Emily’s rapt attention. The reason they left at intermission was because Emily was scared of…. the Genie. I guess what is jovial and entertaining to adults is scary to a toddler. But other than the Genie she had a great time. In fact, she is now my constant companion at musicals, giving me another example about how amazing it is to let kids experience different things in the world. So a big THANK YOU to my mom for introducing her to the world of musical theater that I love so much.

Day 5 in New York City

1. Can you guess how we started our day? I bet you can. Visiting Central Park (Part IV)

My New York City itinerary had us visiting Brooklyn today. But Emily asked to go to Central Park again, and since she is CEO of our little family, away we went. This time we decided to check out the Central Park Zoo. Bryan and I stumbled upon the zoo one winter and had a wonderful time watching the animals. They were coming to life in the refreshing, colder air. It was a welcome change from the sleepy, wilted-in-the-sun animals at the zoo we were used to. However, given the much warmer temperatures this time around, I was worried if the zoo would hold as much awe for us. I was pleasantly surprised that the added enjoyment of watching Emily at the Tisch Children’s Zoo, where she was able to pet goats and sheep and crawl all over animal statues, kept this low key, tiny zoo as one of our favorites.

One of the things I’ve always loved to do in the park, whether I’m alone, with another adult or with kids in tow, is to search for the various statues littered throughout the 840 acre park. My favorites included the statue of Balto (pictured), Alice in Wonderland and Hans Christian Andersen as well as the austere literary walk where one can find the statues of four literary giants as well as Christopher Columbus.

2. Ippudo – the ramen joint that is well worth the wait

I love, love, love Ippudo. The entire family does. I still haven’t found a ramen place in Hawaii that I love as much as this place. So of course we had to include a trip to Ippudo in our New York City itinerary.

3. The suburbs of White Plains a.k.a. day trip #1 from the City

Fun (unfun?) fact: While part of going on our New York City vacation was to visit with friends, I can probably count on one hand the number of friends I have that still live in Manhattan. And I wouldn’t even need all five fingers. Rewind about a decade and that number would have been much higher. However, over the last 10 years, most of my friends got married, popped out babies and moved into the suburbs. And so, day five of our trip had Bryan and me heading north to White Plains to see our friends. Bryan headed off to a local bar to knock back beers with his old work buddies and I headed off to another one of my favorite franchises that isn’t in Hawaii… the Melting Pot.

Helpful hints for traveling the Metro-North Line

To get to White Plains (and back into Manhattan) we caught one of the Metro-North lines out of Grand Central Station. Here are some helpful (I hope) tips if you ever decide to visit a town on the Metro-North line. While you certainly can buy your ticket on board (and I have definitely done this before when I’ve been rushed for time), they charge you a premium and make you pay cash. The best option is to buy a round trip ticket before getting on the train.

Also, keep in mind what time you are traveling as the difference between peak and off-peak travel can be significant. Peak fares apply to weekday trains that arrive in Grand Central Station between 6 AM and 10 AM or that depart Grand Central Station between 4 PM and 8 PM. Peak fares are also charged for travel on any weekday train that leaves Grand Central Station between 6 AM and 9 AM.

The easiest thing to do is to download the onTime: MNR – MetroNorth Rail app onto your phone, select your to / from locations and quickly get a listing of all the train options and even what track the train will leave on.

One more fun fact to help with your commute: you can drink. For example, I’ve definitely purchased a 12-pack with my friends and took it on board the Metro-North line for some pre-gaming fun as we made our way south to the city. If you are less of a pre-planner and not afraid to splurge, you can grab a beer from the vendor that strategically parks himself in front of the various lines at the end of the workday for the many commuters that will fork over cash for an overpriced bud light in order to de-stress after a long day.

Day 6 in New Jersey and Connecticut

1. Take the ferry to New Jersey and enjoy some breathtaking views

Emily and I started off our day by taking the NY Waterway Ferry to New Jersey to visit friends. While the Path is the cheapest way to get to New Jersey, the ferry is definitely the prettiest. If there is something you want to see in New Jersey, I highly suggest you take the ferry route. Just make sure to verify you are at the correct stop before you get off. Emily and I definitely had to sprint back to the ferry after disembarking one stop too early.

2. Travel up to Stamford… the city that gives you huge tax breaks if you are a trashy talk show

We spent our evening in Stamford. My friend drove us there from New Jersey but the Metro-North Line from Grand Central Station is an easy (and much less trafficky) way to go. I had a great time driving by my old house, spending the evening with friends and eating at a couple of my favorite local joints. However, since I assume a synopsis of those events might not interest anyone that hasn’t spent 11 years living in Stamford, I figured I would talk to you about something that might cause you to visit Stamford: trashy talk shows.

In 2009, the Connecticut governor offered huge tax credits to Maury, The Jerry Springer Show, and The Steve Wilkos Show if they moved to Connecticut. He also offered a new $3 million studio facility in Stamford. Shocker of shockers, they all moved. I’ll admit, watching a taping of the Maury Show was one of the greatest highlights of my time in Stamford. I was just disappointed that no one cussed at me, yelling out “you don’t know me!” When my friends and I went we were the only ones that seemed to be local. The ladies behind us in line had just taken a bus in from North Carolina to see the taping. Let me tell you, a 45-minute train commute from NYC is MUCH closer than that.

3. Commuting to New Jersey by Train

Bryan headed to New Jersey for the evening via Penn Station. Penn Station is the busiest station in terms of commuter traffic but not the most visited (that would be Grand Central). This is the station that services the Long Island Railroad (LIRR) and the New Jersey Transit (NJT). While the two stations aren’t connected it’s a very pretty and short walk between the two. And I should know, with an office right next to Penn Station, that used to be my commute every day for 2 years.

Travel Day Home

As it relates to our trip back east, that’s all folks. The next day we woke up early, jumped in a cab and made our way to JFK. We flew to Seattle for another 12 hours in the American Express lounge and then flew back to Honolulu.

NYC Itinerary: Heading Home
Waiting for our flight home

For next time…

Ironically, as I type this, I’m planning my next trip to New York. It’s a much shorter trip (2 days) since the majority of our time will be spent on a cruise ship. However, reflecting back on my last time in NYC certainly gave me a lot to think about in terms of my next itinerary, which will include a lot more kid friendly restaurants but probably the same amount of Central Park visits.

What to see?

Museum of Illusions – Friends recently came back from New York City raving about this museum. The museum’s website reads: “enter the fascinating world of illusions which will trick your confidence in senses, but amaze you by doing it.” All I know is I want my own family pictures to include Bryan’s head on a plate or a gigantic Leo sitting next to a tiny Emily.

Spyscape – Another friends also just came back from NYC (seriously are all my Hawaii friends going to NYC without me?). She never got to visit but one of the places that she intended to stop by was Spyscape, where you can discover your inner spy. Considering that one of my favorite things to do on the annual trips I would take to Washington D.C., was to visit the International Spy Museum (and I have the Spy beanie to prove it), this seems right up my alley.

Hamilton – I am not throwing away my shot. I’ve been dreaming about going to Hamilton since before Lin Manual-Miranda won his first Tony for the musical. I always heard that NYC tickets were still very expensive versus the tour tickets in places like San Francisco and Chicago. However, since I am giving up hope on Hamilton ever coming to Honolulu I figured I could spring for the extra NYC price since it would still be cheaper than flying to the mainland and paying for a hotel room just to see the musical.

Currently tickets for the dates we will be in NYC are not yet being sold… so I’ll just keep searching every day in hopes of catching their next release. In case you were wondering how I was going to see Hamilton with two kids in tow, I’ll let you in on a little secret… Bryan isn’t the other Hamilton lover in the family. Emily is. Although she’s only ever listened to censored versions of the songs and believes that Burn stems from Alexander telling Eliza that he didn’t want to be her friend anymore (very understandable to a 5-year-old).

Where to Eat?

Sushi Yasuda – For our 2020 trip I intend to be with the kids 100% of the time. However, I’ll admit that writing about the high-end eateries that I’ve previously enjoyed in NYC has made me wistful of not getting to experience that level of foodie goodness this time around. But Sushi Yasuda does offer take out.

Ninja New York – Black-clad Ninjas putting on a show for you while you eat Japanese food? What more could you want? Emily is kind of a scaredy-cat so this may not be a good pick for us. However, she is obsessed with PJ Masks and therefore when I broached the topic of eating at this restaurant she jumped at the chance to be among the likes of Night Ninja and his Ninjalinos.

American Girl Cafe – When I was a little girl only the richest girl in the entire school had an American Girl Doll. The rest of us just borrowed the American Girl Series from the Library. Now it seems to be a right of passage that girls go to NYC and obtain their American Girl Doll. However, Emily doesn’t yet know that American Girl Dolls exist so maybe this will be a pass for 1 more year.

Alice’s Tea Cup – In October, one of Emily’s besties is having a princess tea birthday party. Emily is ecstatic. If that goes well I figure a stop at NYC’s most whimsical tea house will be in order.

Dirt Candy – I’m not sure how Emily is my child,the girl loves vegetables. Fish, chicken and meat are all maybes, chocolate is a definite no but vegetables are always welcome on her plate. Considering I’ve always wanted to eat at this vegetarian restaurant that spins out delicious vegetable dishes, I figured this might be a definite option… assuming Leo can behave.

Hawaii Girl Travels…

Check out Destinations to see all the other places I’ve talked about. For other New York City related information, read about my Brooklyn weekend getaway, an amazing day at Spa Castle, and my recommendations of can’t miss things to see and do in New York City and the best places to eat in NYC if you don’t mind a hefty price tag.

You can also check out my write-up on some awesome events in the New York area, such as the New York Renaissance Faire and the Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze (coming soon).

The Best Restaurants in NYC: A Foodie’s Report

The “Spend Half Your Paycheck on Dinner” Edition

Below you’ll find my recommendations for the best restaurants in NYC. Don’t get me wrong, there are many amazing restaurants in NYC that don’t cost an arm and a leg. For example, I am very partial to the $2 dirty water hot dogs sold outside of Grand Central Station. But that will be for a different post. This post is to discuss where you should go when you want to enjoy a fine dining experience and make sure that your hard earned cash does not go to waste.

For those of you scratching your head, thinking”I thought this was a travel blog…” It is. But being the lover of food that I am, I would never travel to a place and not want to try the local cuisine. Or find the hole in the wall joint that is the after work spot to gather. And being that this is about NYC, fine dining pretty much goes hand in hand with the city that never sleeps. Amazing chefs meet uncapped expense accounts and corporate cards. Or the wealthy. Or in the case of my husband and I and many of our friends, this is what we wanted to save up and spend our money on. An unforgettable dining experience.

Eleven Madison Park

The world’s best restaurant

By the time I ate at the 3 Michelin star Eleven Madison Park, family and friends had already been singing its praises for years. They were not alone. In 2017, San Pellegrino had named EMP the best restaurant in the world. I was skeptical. I had eaten in a lot of amazing restaurants, what made this one so special? It turns out the Michelin man and my friends and family all knew what they were talking about.

Located in the MetLife building across from Madison Square Park, EMP operates under a pay-in-advance model. Patrons prepay for their meal when they make reservations online (1-2 months in advance). I’ll admit it was a little hard to stomach the huge bill without knowing if the meal would even be worth it. However, now that I am on the opposite end of meal I can confirm that the 11-course 3.5 hour dinner was de finitely worth the splurge.

While the food was beyond compare, the service really made EMP one of the best restaurants in NYC. For example, when I asked the hostess where the ladies room was, I wasn’t given directions. I was escorted all the way to the bathroom door. Another example was when the meal was over. I was suffering from the worst case of bronchitis, so in a rare dining moment for me, I spent the night knocking back sodas. Meanwhile, prior to sitting down, Bryan ordered one drink at the bar. Before EMP sent us on our way they gave Bryan a complementary glass of brandy and provided sparkling (non-alcoholic) cider for yours truly. I am still floored by how impressive they were to pay attention to our orders like that.

Momofuku Ko

David Chang’s high-end restaurant

When I first discovered David Chang’s Momofuku Ko it was a twelve-seater counter restaurant in the East Village. Reservations could only be made two weeks in advance and were incredibly hard to come by. Open reservations only lasted three seconds on average. It was rumored that even his parents were not able to score reservations. When I did get reservations at Momofuku Ko back then, I considered it one of my greatest accomplishments.

At the time, there wasn’t even the word “Ko” on the door to let you know you were in the right place, just a little peach in the middle of a lattice door.

The elusive Momofuku Ko entrance, circa 2009

However, in 2014 David Chang moved his restaurant to much larger digs. They added a bar option for walk in patrons and reservations can now be made 1 month in advance.

I’ll admit, I miss the coziness of the old location. Like it or not you certainly got close with the other 11 people that would eat with you that day. However, the new setup is much more welcoming to the masses. My father for example, loves the fine dining scene in NYC. He would never have stepped foot in Momofuku Ko back when it was filled with wooden no-back barstools in a cramped environment. But my father would have no issues feeling comfortable in the new setup. When Bryan and I sat at the counter on our last visit it almost seemed like we had our own romantic table for two. Even though they haven’t increased the amount of seats too much, the space between parties have to themselves is significant in comparison to the old environment.

Most importantly, even with the move, the food is still on point. I would be coming to this amazing restaurant in NYC for every big celebration if we still lived nearby.

Le Bernardin

The restaurant that put Eric Ripert on the map

I’ll admit it, I ate at Le Bernardin because I have a huge crush on Eric Ripert. Eating at Le Bernardin certainly did not damper that crush. The food was so good that I now almost regret eating here. Almost. I say this because Le Bernardin has cost me a lot of money. Not because of the price tag, although like every other restaurant on this list, a meal here is not cheap. No, I would have more money because after eating at Le Bernardin I’ve had to spend A LOT of money on a new and expensive habit, eating uni.

I had heard people gush over uni (sea urchin) for years. So much so that I would give it a try from time to time. No matter where I was, I constantly found uni to be the grossest thing I ever ate. Until the night that my husband ordered sea urchin risotto from Le Bernardin and offered me a bite. From then I was sold on the succulent, creamy little morsels. More’s the pity because I have since spent a small fortune on uni sushi, uni shooters, uni pasta, you name it. From the moment I had that first bite of sea urchin risotto, Le Bernardin was bumped up to foodie mecca and became one of the best restaurants in NYC in my mind.

bernidin

Morimoto

Allez-cuisine with an Iron Chef

I spent a lot of the earlier years in the 2000s obsessed with the Japanese version of Iron Chef. (The American version was a poor remake of that amazing show in my opinion). I even orchestrated an entire trip to Philadelphia to eat at Morimoto’s first restaurant before he opened this outpost in NYC.

On our visit to Morimoto’s in NYC, we went with the tasting menu but I feel we could have had just as enjoyable a time eating off of the main menu. All of the dishes we had were excellent but some shined more than others, so you might be better off picking a couple dishes you really want to try. For example, this restaurant made the best restaurant list specifically because I have so many dreams of eating the spiny lobster from Morimoto again.

To leave you with an anecdote, while we were there, the waitress showed us the Morimoto cookbook. They were trying to sell copies so we joked that we would only purchase the cookbook if it was personally signed by Chef Morimoto. The joke was on us. I am now the proud owner of a personalized inscription Morimoto cookbook. Additionally, it’s actually not that hard to make a decent dish following his recipes. I used to be obsessed collecting the cookbooks of famous chefs. I would try to replicate their recipes to disastrous failure. But the Morimoto cookbook wasn’t too difficult to replicate the easier dishes), which was a win in my book.

Daniel

The first of his name

Cleary, I’ve watched too many Game of Thrones episodes this year. Nevertheless, Daniel is the first restaurant that Daniel Boulud opened with his own name in the title. It is also Chef Boulud’s most famous restaurant, located on the upper east side and touting 2 Michelin stars.

The first thing I remember about Daniel is that the moment I sat down a mini chair appeared for my purse to sit on. That is not a typo, my purse was given a chair. The next most memorable event was the specials on the menu, which included tête de veau (a.k.a. calf’s head). Several people in our party jumped at the chance to eat such a delicacy, causing the wait staff to very nicely verify that they truly understood what they were ordering. Not knowing how in the world one cooks tête de veau, I assume you have to be an extraordinary chef to pull it off. Needless to say, their plates were delicious as were my less risky duck foie gras with mango and lamb dishes.

Lastly, I always have to give restaurants credit when they create a fantastic dish out of something I hate. In this case, peas. I hate peas. I used to pick them out of anything served to me as a kid. Nowadays I suffer through them if they are on a dish I like, but I’d prefer to avoid them. I was less than pleased to find out that our amuse bouche would be a trio of peas. However, that first dish at Daniel turned out to be so amazing that I almost licked the bowl clean.

Marea

The late, great Anthony Bourdain was my personal foodie god. After I watched the No Reservations episode where he ate a sea urchin crostini covered in a layer of melted lardo, Marea made it onto my “Restaurant Bucket List” list. The next time we were looking for a fine dining night out I quickly opted for Marea. I was not disappointed. Marea is an Italian restaurant that offers a delectable selection of pasta dishes. More importantly than their pasta however, is their seafood dishes that are creative yet still delicious and filling.

But don’t just listen to my opinion on whether this is one of the best restaurants in NYC. A couple years ago there was a big event for the company I work for that resulted in several of our executives flying to meetings in Manhattan. They were looking for a restaurant to eat at together and asked local New Yorkers for recommendations. Fast-forward to the end of this story and the restaurant they celebrated the big event at was none other than Marea. And how did I learn this story? Because it was such a wonderful experience and great food that they came back singing its praises.

Union Square Cafe

The start of Danny Meyer’s career

Without meaning to, this post could be a love letter to Restaurateur Danny Meyer. For those that haven’t heard of Danny Meyer, he is the pinnacle of best restaurants in NYC. He is the owner of Gramercy Tavern (included below) and Shake Shack (worthy of an entry in a less expensive listing of “can’t miss places to eat at” in NYC). He was also the previous owner of Eleven Madison Park (included above). But the restaurant that launched his acclaimed career in the hospitality business was Union Square Cafe.

Union Square brings a homey feel to its patrons with its wooden chairs and opened-collared wait staff. While not as fancy as some of the other restaurants, the level of service and food provided are still top-notch. And the less fancy atmosphere definitely appeals more to people like my husband that went from working in NYC in a mandatory suit and tie everyday to considering an aloha shirt and khakis to be formal attire. Needless to see, he now prefers dinners that don’t require a coat and tie. But whichever way you fall on the fashion spectrum, Union Square Cafe is a wonderful way to spend an evening.

Due to soaring rent hikes, Union Square Cafe actually closed at the end of 2015. Fortunately they opened again a year later in a larger location. And since the new location was only a couple blocks away they didn’t even need to change their name.

Nougatine

The restaurant that taught me to love soft-shelled crabs

Nougatine is Jean-Georges’ more casual sister. It is amazingly nice but still the Café Boulud to the Daniel, the Bouchon to the Per Se, the McDonald’s cheeseburger to the $30 Minetta Tavern Black Label Burger.

In regards to the food, everything was so imaginative. We had an amuse bouche of homemade mozzarella and asparagus soup and an appetizer of foie gras brule with strawberry jam. However, the star of the night was their soft shell crab with sugar snap pea remoulade. This was the dish that put soft shell crabs on the map for me. Similar to my experience with uni, I did not understand the appeal of soft shell crabs until Nougatine. This place certainly changed my mind, earning it a spot on my best restaurants in NYC.

Lastly, the service was impeccable. Note that this high praise is coming from what perhaps might have been their most irritating group in quite some time. Our group of four had a Broadway play to get to so we needed to be in and out of the restaurant as fast as possible. My husband meanwhile was having his own Comedy of Errors production trying to get to the restaurant and was pretty late showing up. The staff handled every request gracefully, did everything we asked, and we made it out the door at Nougatine with a lot of time to spare to get up to the Great White Way.

Gramercy Tavern

Gramercy Tavern was perhaps my first foray into the world of expensive restaurants in NYC. Until then we had never really broke the bank to eat out and didn’t really understand why people would do such a thing. This restaurant taught us why.

During one of my visits to Gramery Tavern, I ended up ordering their venison dish for my main meal. Until that moment I never understood reviews that described meat as “melting in [their] mouth like butter”. That statement made no sense to me, what a stupid simile. And then I ate the Venison at Gramercy Tavern and it melted in my mouth like butter.

The last time I ate at Gramercy Tavern I was about 30 minutes late. I showed up as a sweaty mess after sprinting over from my midtown office in the overbearing summer heat. The wait staff didn’t even blink an eye. They treated me to the same excellent level of service as those that arrived with coiffed hair and unwrinkled suits.

One final thing worth mentioning is their drink menu and bartender. I like to drink, plain and simple. However I can be content with a budlight or a $10 champagne from Costco. When it comes to alcohol, I’m easily impressed. Not so much on the mocktail front. For health reasons my husband doesn’t drink too much. Whenever we go out, he’ll be the one person in the group knocking back the iced tea. Until Gramercy Tavern. My father and I ordered the wine pairing during one of our visits. My husband ordered his iced tea. The waiter however countered and asked if he would like to try a non-alcoholic pairing instead. Despite the amazing food dishes we ate, Bryan spent the following weeks raving about all the drinks he got to enjoy.

Best Restaurants in NYC - Gramercy Tavern

Sushi Yasuda 

The best sushi restaurant I’ve ever been to, and that’s saying something

Yet again another restaurant recommended by Anthony Bourdain. In my mind, Sushi Yasuda is not just one of the best restaurants in NYC. It has become the sushi restaurant that I compare all other sushi restaurants to. And those other restaurants continue to fall short. That is saying a lot considering I live in Honolulu, a place where a new sushi spot seems to pop-up every month in an already very saturated market.

Chef Yasuda has stated that it takes 10 years to become a sushi chef. It takes years just to learn how to prepare the rice. It shows. Every single bite I’ve ever had at Sushi Yasuda has been incomparable. On one visit I watched a younger sushi chef pass a plate of uncut fish down the row of chefs to the head chef. The head chef sliced the fish into sashimi-sized portions and sent it back down the row. I could only surmise that the young chef was not senior enough to be allowed to cut his own fish. That was the seriousness in which Sushi Yasuda takes their sushi preparation.

I’ve sat next to sushi-eating newbies that have been content with their california rolls and miso soup. But if you are game, I absolutely recommend ordering the omakase (chef’s choice) at the bar. And do not giving your sushi chef any limitations on what to make. My husband is not a big fan of ikura (salmon roe) or uni (sea urchin). He could go on and on to you about why they aren’t his favorite things to eat. But at Sushi Yasuda he orders both because it tastes completely different from anywhere else.

Best Restaurants in NYC - Sushi Yasuda

Per Se

Thomas Keller’s New York Famed Restaurant Per Se

Thomas Keller was such a hero of Bryan’s that if Emily had been born a boy, he would have been named Keller. The price tag to dine at Per Se was outrageous but I knew Bryan really wanted to eat there. I saved up all year and took the 5:30 PM reservation offered on a Tuesday night in February. It was the only time I could get. I presented it to Bryan as his Christmas present. To this day, it might have been the best Christmas gift I ever got him.

That cold night in February was the most amazing experience we ever had at a restaurant. The dishes were one delicious plate after another and the service made us feel like royalty. We came back again to celebrate my father-in-law’s Kanreki and it was the same superb experience.

And then in 2016, Pete Wells from the New York Times knocked down Per Se from 4 stars to 2 stars. It was the demotion heard round the (foodie) world. In a trip back to New York after the review, I was initially hesitant to return to Per Se, but in the end I decided to take the plunge. I’ll admit it wasn’t as wonderful as that first (and second) trip. I actually was very undecided about whether to include Per Se on my list. However, in the end I realized that while Per Se may not be as great as it used to be, it is still one of the best restaurants in NYC. It is just no longer the sure front winner.

Hawaii Girl Travels…

Check out Destinations to see all the other places I’ve talked about. For other New York City-related information, read about my Brooklyn weekend getaway, an amazing day at Spa Castle, our 6-day trip back to NYC with an almost-three-year-old, and my recommendations of can’t miss things to see and do in New York City.