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.
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.
Why all the fuss? What is Rise of the Resistance anyway?
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.
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.
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
Most importantly, download the Disneyland App (its icon is blue with the Disney castle and a firework above the left side of the castle).
Set up an account on the Disneyland App and log in.
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.
Scan and link all Disneyland tickets / passes to the app by scanning the barcode or manually typing in the ticket number.
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.
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.
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?
Open the Disneyland App. (Actually, do this before the line queue opens. It automatically refreshes itself when the time comes.)
You’ll see a “Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance – Access By Boarding Group” section. Click on “Join Boarding Group.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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
$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.
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.
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)).
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
3. Eat at Sushi Yasuda… named the best sushi restaurant in America (by me)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
One of my favorite things to do when I lived in Connecticut was to come up with a list of places in Hawaii for my New England friends to visit. It started happening so often that I even made a word document. Whenever a friend reached out asking for advice on Hawaii, I would just send them that document. Now that I’ve moved back to Hawaii I get asked about once a year for my recommendations about New York City. I figured it was time I made a formal list for the Big Apple as well.
I’ll admit it, I’m biased. I used to work right next door to ground zero. I watched the rebuilding and eventual opening of One World Trade Center. However, this powerful and respectful memorial surpassed all my expectations. It did a superb job of being able to capture the devastation and loss while honoring the victims. A trip to New York City would be incomplete without a stop at this memorial. #NeverForget
On the anniversary of 9/11 you can also see the Tribute in Light. This is an art installation that creates two vertical columns of light to represent the Twin Towers.
You will certainly find people that are a lot more appreciative of art than myself. However, even I stand in awe when getting to see the likes of Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night, Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory and Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans as well as 200,000 other items. I used to be obsessed with Vincent van Gogh. I dare you to watch Vincent and Me and not be as well. It was such a surreal experience to finally get to see The Starry Night on my first trip to the MOMA in New York City.
Can I just say one thing? Egyptian Temple of Dendur from 10 B.C. That’s correct 10 B.C. In this museum!
There is of course a plethora of other amazing pieces of artwork from various centuries and across the world. However, the Temple of Dendur remains my all-time favorite.
Not to date myself but since I already referenced one movie that was from the 1990s, here’s another one: The Thomas Crown Affair. I loved, loved, loved that movie and a big part of the plot took place around the Met and the artwork that it holds.
If all that hasn’t sold you, please note that the views of New York City from the rooftop bar on the top floor of the Met are stunning.
Clearly I’m now on a B-rated movie role now, so I’ll continue. How can you live in a post Night at the Museum world and not want to check out the real exhibits? Or here’s a little factoid for you super young Gen Xers or really old Millennials (aka my peer group that I assume is as well versed in the Friends universe as I am). Ross worked at AMNH as a paleontologist. (Come on – that’s cool stuff!). We took Emily to AMNH when we recently came back to New York City for a visit. She loved all the various animal displays.
I get why New Yorkers hate this place. Believe me, I do. I spent two years with a commute that took me smack dab through Times Square. It was so annoying to deal with the congested foot traffic of tourists that added to my commute time. But for the non-locals out there, you have to love this most recognizable of places in the US. This is New York City. Home to the naked cowboy and Broadway and the NYE ball drop. Want to get out of Times Square for some place a little cheaper? That is easy to due considering that so many of the subway lines converge at Times Square.
Lastly, this is the place that I always felt the most safe commuting through. I’ll admit, I’ve had to burn the midnight oil from time to time at the workplace. Even in relatively safe suburbs, I would get a twinge of fear when walking to my car late at night. I was always worried just how well monitored the parking garage would be. But I never had those fears walking from my midtown office to Grand Central Station. The barrage of tourists still out and about at all hours of the night definitely make you feel safe as they wander on passed you with their camera phone and selfie stick in hand.
The Great White Way
Yes, tickets to New York City’s Broadway plays are expensive. Yes, the talent of the cast will ruin local productions for you forever. But seeing a production on the Great White Way is an experience you shouldn’t miss. This part of New York City is home to 40 plus theaters and some are over 100 years old. I’ll admit, I’ve been to some huge misses over the years (I’m looking at you Lestat) but most were phenomenal. I used to celebrate my birthday every year by going to see Wicked. And come on, it’ll make you feel cultured AF.
Chelsea Market and the High Line
I’ll admit it, for years I thought this was just another office building complex in New York City. It wasn’t until I went to meet a friend who worked in the building that I realized it housed retail stores and a food hall. Fun fact about me: I love food halls. And when you’ve had your feel of shopping and stuffing your face, head over to walk the High Line. The views of the Hudson are fantastic.
This place is beautiful in any season.
When the snow falls, look to the steep hills to watch the kids sledding. Heck, join them as you can get a cheap plastic sled from any of the Duane Reade/Walgreens type of stores. You can also take your turn skating around Wollman Rink. I love the Central Park Zoo in the middle of winter, watching the animals come alive in the colder weather.
As the days grow longer and spring makes her welcoming appearance, you can sit and just take in the beautiful flowers blooming. Especially come to see the beautiful cherry blossom trees abloom with their varying shades of pink. Similarly, in the autumn one can come to take in the fall foliage. I’ve sat on a bench by myself in the late fall taking it all in and pinching myself that I lived there (okay a 40 minute train ride away but close enough).
And in the summer, you can make use of the various water activities, including gondola rides, paddle boating and model sailboat sailing.
Visit the Union Square Greenmarket
This farmers market is amazing. The food is so fresh and so varied with its rows of vendors selling everything from wine to roses. It continues to be the only place I’ve ever found squash blossoms. And the people watching is on point. My favorite was a local who would walk around the market getting his groceries with his cat calmly sitting on top of his head. No that wasn’t a typo. The cat just calmly stayed perched on his head while he shopped. If I ever win the lottery, one of the first things I’m going to do is to purchase an apartment near Union Square.
I know I just gushed about Central Park, but Bryant Park is actually my favorite park in New York City. Located right outside Times Square it was so refreshing to see this green oasis after all that hustle and bustle. There is so much to do there despite its size. There is a beautiful outside-seating restaurant, a carousel (called Le Carrousel), ice skating in the winter, putt putt golf in the summer and people watching any time of year.
At 42,500 square feet, the NYC Flatiron location Eataly is the largest artisanal Italian food and wine marketplace in the world. Now this market has spread across the globe with several spots in the U.S., but back when it first opened, there was only one other Eataly, in Italy. We primarily went to eat food from one of the many restaurants but we also loved just perusing the aisles to see what groceries we could get, like a $1,000 bottle of balsamic vinegar. We may not have gone for that version, but picking up bread, meat, cheese and normally priced olive oil and vinegar always made for a wonderful picnic spread later on.
Grand Central Station
Grand Central Station used to be the place I would stumble into half asleep from my early morning commute and wish I had found a job closer to home. If someone had told me then that someday I would be adding this commuting hub to my places to visit, I would have laughed in their face.
It took moving away from the area (and the commute) to realize just how impressive this place is. If you don’t believe me, believe all the other tourists. Grand Central Station doesn’t have the highest number of commuters in the nation (that would be Penn Station), but it does have the highest number of visitors. There are so many restaurants to eat in (from Shake Shack to the famed Grand Central Oyster Bar), stores to explore (check out the amazing Apple store that worked hard when it was being built to blend into its surroundings), the fun Whispering Gallery and the beautiful celestial ceiling with the zodiac painted backwards.
Nestled in suburban Queens is the Korean mega-spa, Spa Castle. When I was living on the east coast, Time Out New York was my bible of cannot miss things to do. TONY seemed to love Spa Castle and mentioned them constantly. However, I was still hesitant about a huge bathhouse in Queens with naked (non-coed) sections and little kids running around. Little kids that may or may not be potty-trained. I finally pulled the trigger after my hairdresser recommended it to me. She had just finished telling me that she had spent the previous weekend in Vegas partying with Jay-Z so I figured she was someone to listen to.
Photo credit: Spa Castle New York
Step 1: The Check-In Process at Spa Castle
Once we arrived at Spa Castle and checked in ($50/person on the weekdays and $60/person on the weekends for full access to the pools, saunas, and resting rooms) we were given a watch-looking device that worked as our locker keys and money. It definitely made for an extremely relaxing and hassle-free day. However, I was worried about just how much a hassle-free day would cost me. The prices for food and drinks were easy to see, but buying that last mudslide was a lot easier when it was just a flip of my wrist versus pulling out cash.
Stop 2: Bathhouse and Locker Lounge a.k.a. Naked Narnia
Once we got our wrist band and additional 21+alcohol bands it was time to enter into Disneyland for exhibitionists, the men’s and women’s locker room. This is where I found out that despite the fact that 9 times out of 10 I am the most inappropriate person in the room, I am quite the prude. Everywhere I looked, girls were air drying themselves by lying out on the locker room benches in all their glory or blow-drying their hair sans…. anything. I was the only one scampering around in a towel I brought from home (because the towels they lend you are the size of a washcloth).
Now for those of you as awkward about walking around stark naked as I am, that’s just for the locker room. You are given a t-shirt and shorts uniform to wear while you are outside the locker room. And it is a really comfortable uniform. Although not quite the height of fashion and in predictable pink for girls and blue for boys.
Now when I say “locker room” I don’t simply mean a place for you to put your belongings and change your clothes, I mean an amazing world of dry and wet sauna rooms, mineral pools, aqua-jets, and a healing room just to name a few. I dubbed it Naked Narnia.
Stop 3: Saunas a.k.a. World of Saunas at Spa Castle
Heading up the stairs from Naked Narnia (and into the co-ed sections of Spa Castle) we entered the World of Saunas (also dubbed by me, the real name is Sauna Valley). Pro-tip of the day: sauna is pronounced sow-na. Maybe that is common knowledge but I had no idea I had been pronouncing it wrong all my life until I stumbled upon a little informative pronunciation plaque over in World of Sauna.
Regardless of whether you call it saw-na or sow-na, just know… The World of Saunas is fantastic. There are eight themed saunas in all, arranged to look like a little village. They range from the very hot, never less than 185 degree sauna, to the very cold, never above 25 degrees sauna, and all the ones in between, which included infrared saunas, gold saunas and jeweled saunas.
Stop 4: All the Eating
Maybe we should have done our order a little differently in order to sweat off our lunch. In any case, after leaving the World of Saunas we went searching for food. There were sandwiches, dumplings, pizza, salad, you name it, including my favorite, the Korean plates offered on the top floor.
Stop 5: Indoor and Outdoor Pools at Spa Castle
One floor above the World of Saunas are a plethora of indoor and outdoor pools. The outdoor pools are heated and open year-round, meaning that even if you visit in the dead of winter the water is absolutely balmy and pleasant. However, being soaking wet and getting out of the pool into 25 degrees F weather can be less than pleasant. (We went in March.) But not to fear, there is also a sauna right next to the outdoor pools that freezing individuals such as yours truly can scamper into in order to drip dry.
Photo credit: Spa Castle New York
One of the indoor pools also comes with a swim-up / walk-up bar, which I used to inhale the aforementioned and delicious (anti-diet) mudslide. Spa Castle seemed pretty strict on alcohol consumption, as you are limited to 3 drinks per person. Pro-tip of the day: finagle your non-drinking cohort into getting a wristband so you can move on to drinking his allotted 3 drinks once you are finished with your own. You’re welcome.
Also, try to keep your uniform dry. As a rule, you cannot walk around the sauna area in your swimsuit. Therefore, after swimming, I put my uniform back on over my wet swimsuit and got the former wet as well. I was able to exchange them for a new/dry pair, but it took a lot of badgering and pleading. Needless to say, the Spa Castle workers were not thrilled with me.
Stop 6… really Stop 2 again: Naked Narnia 2.0
Having had our fill of pools (and mud-slides) we headed off back to the Naked Narnia locker room to get showered and changed. Be prepared for a total lack of privacy as there are no curtains in the shower area. Some of the best (or so I’ve been told) indoor bade spa pools are located in the locker room. However, they are very strict about their “must be naked” policy. I figured I could just be the only awkward one enjoying the pool in a swimsuit. After all, to each their own right? Wrong. It’s naked or nothing. I went with the “or nothing” route. Bryan had a lot fewer qualms than I did about Naked Narnia and tried out the various options. After a long sojourn, Bryan reported back that those pools, hot tubs, and saunas were the best at Spa Castle.
Stop 7: The Sleeping Room at Spa Castle
After getting our fill of Naked Narnia it was time to check out the sleeping and meditation rooms. It was basically a room full of reclining chairs. Bryan promptly passed out and I relaxed and caught up on my various social media threads. There was also a menu here of additional add-on services that you could request, like massages. And if you are so inclined (read: less lazy than the Hawaii Girl Travels fam) there is also a gym up on the top floor as well.
If you can get out to Queens hit this place up. The offerings are worth the entrance fee. I saw only a couple of children in the locker room and none in the co-ed sections, most likely because we went on a weekday (since we were trying to burn through some vacation days). You may end up seeing a lot of kids running around on the weekend since Spa Castle is always recommended as a great place for the entire family to enjoy.
I love cruising. I think I’ve taken 10 cruises in total. My first cruise was when I was 12 years old to celebrate my parents’ 25th wedding anniversary. One of my first big vacations with my boyfriend (now husband) after college was on a cruise. A big part of my honeymoon included a cruise. And in the Summer of 2018, I was so excited to be taking my daughter on her first cruise. Unfortunately, after over two decades of great experiences, this time it fell short.
It took me a while to write this post (7 months to be exact). I wanted to have some time pass in order to figure out what exactly went wrong. The passage of time worked. I can now pinpoint the problems with our vacation to one big issue: the cruise line we selected was only set up to handle families during peak travel times of the year. And that’s not when we went.
Bryan and I have always been very keen to travel during the off-peak vacation times of the year. First and foremost, it is always A LOT cheaper. The other major perks of traveling during the off-peak times include far fewer crowds and barely any kids. Fast-forward to vacationing with our own child in tow and those were still some of the three biggest factors to us. And that is where we went wrong. Because if a cruise ship has hardly any kids around, then they are not going to put forth much effort for the few that do show up. This brings me to our first issue with our Alaskan Cruise on the Ruby Princess, the kids club.
The Kids Club – Availability
The kids club options that the Princess Cruise Line offered sounded fantastic. The listing of hours and activities we received on the first day looked like it would be a great experience and that Emily would have a great time. The problem was that the club actually remained closed for most of the cruise. This was in order for the staff to prepare for the next week’s crowd. This group was deemed more important than our own based on the increased number of children expected to make an appearance.
At first, I thought the club closure wasn’t a huge deal. With both of us working fulltime jobs we try to use our vacations to enjoy family time together. What I didn’t realize was that family time together while stuck on a boat in a small cabin can be really boring for a 4-year-old. Especially when that 4-year-old was given a tour of the cruise that included the Kids Club area. Emily was dying to hang out on the indoor playground and play with other kids.
The Kids Club – Age-Appropriateness
Finally, with only a couple of days left to go before the cruise ended, the Ruby Princess gods deemed it was finally time to open up the club again. Emily was ecstatic and spent all of breakfast one morning asking when she could go check out the place. Unfortunately, it turned out that while they originally offered 3 separate clubs, one for teenagers, one for 8-12-year-olds and one for 3-7-year-olds, they only opened the room for the 8-12-year-olds. Ever wonder why you don’t send preschoolers directly to the 3rd grade? Emily can now give you a list of exactly how boring that would be for the preschoolers. After this happened a second time we gave up on the kids club altogether. I heard other parents loudly complaining about this as well so I know we weren’t the only unhappy campers.
While irritating as someone that has just paid a lot of money for a cruise, I can understand that financially it wasn’t in the cruise line’s best interest to appease the 15 or so families with children that were on vacation. I just wish they would have been upfront with their scheduling. If my daughter hadn’t gotten to see the fun play area and hear about all the exciting things she could do and people she could play with, she would not have been so disappointed when it didn’t happen.
Another big problem we had was the bedding. In a standard room like the one we had, there are two twin beds with two additional bunk beds that extend down from the ceiling. Emily loved the bunk bed and found it fantastic that she had her own private place to stay. The downside was that there were warnings everywhere that a child younger than 9 shouldn’t be on the top bunk. While I was fine with her making a little fort for herself while we were awake, I figured that warnings were a very good point to heed when there was no adult supervision (due to her dad and I sleeping). Therefore, much to her chagrin, Emily was forced to sleep on one of the main two bunk beds.
In theory this was fine, one parent on the other twin bed and one parent in the upper bunk. Bryan offered to sleep in the upper bunk on night one. He spent the next day complaining about how bad of a mattress it was to sleep on. Partially because it was only fair and partially to prove that he was just being a wimp, I took my turn on the top bunk on night two. It ended up being one of the worst sleeping experiences I’ve ever had. With both of us refusing to take a second night on the top bed and not allowing our more than willing daughter to take a turn we instead took turns sharing the twin bed with our constantly tossing and turning 4-year-old for the remaining five nights of the cruise.
The last big disappointment on the cruise was the entertainment. It was probably fine for the adult-only crowd but with Emily with us we were no longer staying out late to go dancing, drinking or frequenting the casinos. Therefore, I had really been looking forward to the kid-appropriate evening entertainment, such as the cheesy dance numbers taking place in the main dining room, towel animals in the rooms and midnight buffets to gape at. None of these were available on the Princess Lines. Since I had experienced it on all the other cruises we’d been on, I didn’t realize it wasn’t a given.
I was also used to a family-friendly broadway-esque performance, staff talent show, magic show or cirque du soleil number being performed on the big stage every night. That also turned out not to be a given as this time there were only 3 different performances for the 7 nights aboard the Ruby Princess.
One other tip I’d like to add is just to avoid buying a WiFi package. Try as we might to leave work behind, Bryan and I got a little worried about being completely out of touch with our teams back in Honolulu and bought a WiFi package for $100. The WiFi was horribly slow at best and on most days simply didn’t work. Save yourself the aggravation and just use cell service once you dock in the ports. It is what we ended up doing anyway, albeit $100 poorer.
What went right?
In summary, I wasn’t happy with our Princess Cruise Line experience, but I LOVED, LOVED, LOVED Alaska. As a girl who has always valued life at the beach over life in a snowy mountain I am now seriously thinking of including Alaska in my retirement plans. For the summer months at least. Click here to read about how much I loved Alaska.
So which cruise line should you take?
I’m certainly no expert when it comes to cruises. Even with 10 cruises under my belt, I’ve only been on 5 different cruise lines. But this is how I would “stereotype” those five lines:
Big crowds, big boats and cheap. Great for virgin cruisers. I haven’t been on the Carnival cruise line in years so this may have changed, but we stopped traveling on Carnival because we were tired of having to make friends with other passengers during dinners at assigned tables. Call us anti-social but forced conversations during vacations just wasn’t our thing. That being said, there always seemed to be a party happening on the top deck and fun functions with the cruise line staff to watch.
Trailblazers in getting away from the traditional dining experience by offering more “restaurants” (many with a surcharge) and fewer sit-with-strangers at a specific time each night setting. Called “freestyle cruising” it was fun to sample the various restaurants that the cruise offered. While I actually love the chilled fruit soup dish that accompanies most menus in the traditional cruise dining room, it was exciting to spend one night at a Mexican restaurant, followed by a sushi lunch and dinner the next night at an Italian restaurant. There was also a lot more entertainment to appeal to the younger crowd (both younger adults as well as kids), including glow-in-the-dark bowling alleys and water slides. I took a sake tasting and sushi-making class one day aboard the ship. This may be my favorite affordable cruise line.
I don’t know how to say this without coming across as “ageist” but this is definitely for the senior citizen crowd. As an example, my own mom mentioned how much younger she felt compared to most passengers when she took the Holland America line while in her 60s. We didn’t even realize the age difference between us and the average passenger until it was pointed out to us (over and over again) by the older crowd that took a keen if not humorous interest in why us kids (we were in our 30s) decided on the Holland America line. The problem with taking a cruise with people 2 generations older than you is that the cruise designs most of their entertainment with that age range in mind.
However, the ship made up for their typically senior citizen leanings by setting up a huge ship-wide bar crawl for us “young-uns”. Let’s just say that from what I remember of it, it was well worth the price of admission. Needless to say, there was a lot of alcohol!
The gold standard that all cruises should live up to. I traveled on Disney when I was childless and not one bit interested in hanging around a bunch of kids during my vacation. I assumed this would be an impossible dream since it was Disney after all. However, they worked hard to provide adult-only pools and other options. There was even an adults-only section on their private island, Castaway Cay.
Everything you could think of was planned out perfectly, from a pirate-themed bon voyage party with fireworks to amazing broadway-esque performances at night. And that perfection will cost you double what the other cruise lines would charge you. For some reason, it seemed like everyone with a young family that I knew ended up taking an Alaskan Disney cruise this summer. I sadly looked at the pictures of their kids having the time of their lives and wished I hadn’t been so cheap.
This is the cruise line for those wanting an education on their vacation. Most of the onboard activities were geared towards lectures and learnings, primarily for those in the 50s-60s range without kids. Known as the “love boat” this cruise line will excite those looking for a more traditional cruising experience. I read a blog review by a lady who took her dad on the same cruise as we took. She raved about how wonderful it was to spend the afternoon curled up in various corners with a good book. It sounded like the cruise this blogger selected really was perfect for her. That the exact type of person who will revel in the Princess cruise lines. It’s just not for someone looking for ways to keep her energetic family entertained.
Good luck on selecting your next cruise, may the odds be ever in your favor!
For a summary of my trip to Sydney and details of our time near the CBD, see my earlier post.
Day 4 in Sydney started with us leaving the CBD and the Four Seasons and moving to the Radisson Hotel and Suites at Darling Harbour. After relocating it was time to head out to our first stop, Madame Tussauds. Having visited both the Las Vegas and New York locations on numerous occasions as well as one in London, I had not originally planned on visiting the one in Sydney since I figured I had seen all the wax sculptures I needed to. However, since admissions came with our Sydney 5-Attraction Pass (discussed here) we figured “why not?” It turned out to be an awesome morning of dancing with Michael, chilling in the oval office and hanging out with my ex-Prince William and his wife (whom I now love much more than Wills).
Nearby to Madame Tussauds was both the Wild Life Sydney Zoo that we had visited on our first day in Sydney and the next stop on our journey, the Sea Life Sydney Aquarium (also on our 5-Attraction pass). For the most part it seemed like other aquariums I have seen before with tunnels to walkthrough underneath the tank and fishes and sea animals of all types to look at, but there were a couple unique options they had as well, which were pretty cool. There was a “Penguin Expedition” where we boarded a raft/boat to circle around the penguin enclosure. I loved that the air was so cold in the expedition, along with being a refreshing change from the hot summer sun outside it was nice to not see overheated animals wilting in cages like we tend to see in zoos and sea life aquariums in other cities. (Picture below was taken from our raft while on the Penguin Expedition.) The other item of interest I was unable to try due to Emily’s young age was the Great Barrier Reef where you can take a glass bottom boat over a part of the aquarium that is made to emulate the Great Barrier Reef.
After the aquarium we walked along the promenade at Darling Harbor and decided to find a place to stop for lunch, cue Nick’s Seafood Restaurant. The place had a touristy feel to it and the menu certainly had tourist prices but the food was very fresh and the locations was the best.
After Nick’s restaurant we headed back to the hotel to unpack and relax. While only 2 km away, there was a big difference between CBD and Darling Harbour. Having lived near New York City for nine years and spending a lot of time in Washington DC on vacation it reminded me a lot of the differences between those two cities. CBD was historic with pristine streets and lots of tourists while Darling Harbour had modern buildings, scaffolding abound and a more trendy atmosphere, or at least that was my take on the differences.
For dinner, my sister, Emily and I headed out to see Darling Harbour on foot and made our way to the famous Harry’s Café de Wheels for some renowned pot pies. We picked up a bunch of options to share for dinner and headed back to the hotel. The walk was a great way to get acquainted to the neighborhood but the pot pies turned out to be just okay.
When I was still planning our Sydney itinerary back in March 2016, a high school classmate posted a picture of her lunch on Instagram. I was drooling and quickly went to see what local restaurant she had gone to, assuming it was a restaurant in Honolulu. I was sad when I found out that she was posting pictures from her lunch at the Sydney Fish Market, although it quickly made my list of places I wanted to visit. On Day 5 I got my wish as we started off our morning navigating the stalls of this delicious mecca. The food dish from Instagram that led me to the Sydney Fish Market is pictured below as the uni on a bed of rice with tobiko situated inside the sea urchin shell (found at Peter’s Fish Market). I bought two for myself and Emily, figuring that I could have the uni and tobiko and she could eat the rice. Emily did not apparently learn how to share yet and after she ate all of the uni, tobiko and rice from both shells I had to go back to get a round for myself.
Taking the train back to the hotel from the Syndey Fish Market, we stopped to peruse the aisles of vendors inside Paddy’s Haymarket where my sister had fun shopping for clothes and I just focused on trying to keep Emily from grabbing everything in sight.
For dinner that night my mom had her own plans and my sister told me that my itinerary was exhausting her so she was going to have a low key night staying near the hotel. Since poor Emily didn’t get a vote I decided to make it a mother-daughter outing. I strapped Emily into her into her stroller and with Koala in hand we took off, catching the train back up to Circular Quay to take in some of the Christmas decorations and to catch a ferry ride out to Manly. I didn’t actually have any plans to see Manly, but catching the ferry to the far away island is the cheapest sunset cruise you can get around the Sydney harbor and it was amazing. The sights of the little islands and houses we passed on our way out to Manly had me daydreaming of what my life would be like if I lived over there and took a ferry to work every day. I was all set to figure out a place to eat once we got to Manly but Emily started crashing and fearing that keeping her out too late would cause a monster sized melt down on her part, we hopped on the ferry back to Sydney Harbor to grab a bite to eat and head back to Darling Harbor for the night.
Google “things to do” in Sydney and more often than not you’ll be told to do the “Coogee to Bondi Costal Walk”. While I’m exhausted just thinking about it 1.5 years later, it was one of the most memorable parts of the trip for me. Coves and beaches galore to see and swim at, awe-inspiring scenery and a pretty intense graveyard. The only problem is that while it is doable with a stroller, it certainly causes issues. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
The Walk: Coogee to Bondi – A lot of websites discussed walking from Bondi to either Coogee or Bronte but I really wanted to end up at Icebergs in Bondi, so we decided to fill up our Opal card and take the bus to Coogee for the start of our adventure. Getting off the bus we decided to grab breakfast at Little Jack Horner. The food was delicious, the view amazing (we sat right across from Coogee beach) and how cute was Emily’s juice cup?
Once we had gorged ourselves it was time to walk off our breakfast so we headed across the street to Coogee beach to start our 6 km trek, weaving our way from Coogee to Clovelly to Bronte to Tamarama and finally on to Bondi.
As I said, it was one of the most memorable things we did. However, if not everyone in your group is able to walk without help, really think about if the gorgeous views are worth it and how much you can handle. To get the best views, the hike takes you down and then back up very steep stairs near the beach. Emily was already too big/heavy for me to carry any time she got tired so we were definitely in need for a stroller. We attempted at some points to avoid the steps by taking the car path, but this added on to our walk significantly as we got hopelessly lost in the process. In the end the best way to make the trip was to have one person (my mom) carry Emily while one person (me) carry the stroller up and down the steps (sister got out of the heavy lifting on account of back problems). Doable but definitely tiring.
One of the most surprising parts of the walk was Waverley Cemetery. I believe the route from Coogee to Bondi would always route you past the cemetery, but since they were doing work on the beach path in the area, everyone was routed deep into the cemetery to see ornate tombs and tall statues.
Finally over two hours later (I think the typical in shape (since I am not) walker without a stroller/baby in tow can do this trip in much less time) we finally made it to Bondi. I wanted nothing more than to relax at the famous Bondi Icebergs looking at the most amazing pool ever. Note: the pool is open to the public for a fee. If I ever get back to Sydney I think I may skip the walk and just take the bus directly to Bondi and spend the day in that pool. We were a sweaty mess with no reservations and I was embarrassed to even ask for a table amidst all the well groomed tourists and locals surrounding us, however the staff was very accommodating. That being said, after ordering we realized just how late it was and had to apologize, ask for our food to be provided to go (or take away as the Aussie’s call it) and raced out of Icebergs to catch the bus back to Darling Harbour. Worst customers ever! (A big thank you to Icebergs for putting up with that with class and finesse.)
Why did we have to vacate from Icebergs so fast? Because my sister and I had a date at a restaurant that had been on my bucket list for a LONG time: Tetsuya’s.
It was a dream of mine to eat at Sydney’s famous Tetsuya’s restaurant, but with a two year old in tow I figured I would have to bow out. M
A little bit about me: In my twenties I had a good job with a steady paycheck, no children and a tiny mortgage. I’d like to say that I was thrifty and squirreled all my money away for a rainy day and am now swimming like Scrooge McDuck in all my gold. But instead I had a bad addiction of eating at some of the best (and therefore expensive) restaurants in the world. I closely tracked the San Pellegrino Best Restaurants in the World and was such a fan girl over the top chefs. Today our kitchen is covered in tasting menus signed by chefs of the restaurants we got to visit. However, Tetsuya’s, located half a world away in Sydney, was never an option. Fast-forward a decade and Tetsuya’s had lost it’s star at the top of the Best Restaurants list. I wasn’t deterred by the drop in status however, and at least with the downgrade, reservations were not impossible to get. At the beginning of our trip planning I had thought I would have to bow out of getting to experience Tetsuya’s since Emily wouldn’t be able to go. My mom however offered to go alone to Tetsuya’s so that on a separate night she could watch Emily while my sister and I got to enjoy the restaurant. Best mom ever! And also why she was busy on Day 5 when I went out to Manly.
From the outside, Tetsuya’s reminded me of a consulate building, slightly unassuming around the corner from our hotel. Inside were small to medium sized rooms so that when dining it feels like you are in a tiny, cozy restaurant instead of a place that seats hundreds. The wait staff was impeccably dressed, friendly and knowledgeable about the meal. My one negative take away however, was that I didn’t leave stuffed. Maybe it was the fact that I had spent the day on our trek around Sydney’s coast but at $230/person before tax, tips, drinks or the add-on delicious oysters I felt I should get to roll out of the restaurant.
The coolest part of Tetsuya’s was the end of the evening when the head waiter invited us back to take a peak at the kitchen. It was definitely a day and night to remember.
I had plans to spend the day sightseeing the Blue Mountains. We were going to take a 2-hour train ride from Central Station to Katoomba. Once in Katoomba we would purchase tickets to ride the hop-on hop-off Blue Mountains Explorer Bus before returning to Sydney in the evening. A part of me regrets not following this plan. But for the most part I am happy that I threw in the towel on my itinerary. Waking up exhausted after our Bondi walk followed by lots of alcohol and a 10-course dinner, we all decided that spending a low key day wandering Sydney one last time was the perfect way to end the trip.
We started out our day eating breakfast at the Queen Victoria Building before wandering inside to view the shops decked out for Christmas time.
Next we wandered through Hyde Park, Australia’s oldest park and a beautiful piece of green amidst the city, watching street performers and walking through the pathways and trees.
We made our way back to Westfield Shopping Center in order to look at the Christmas window displays and to eat at one of my favorite restaurants: Ippudo. When we lived near New York hands down the best noodle and pork bun restaurant in our opinion was Ippudo, so I was ecstatic to find out that they had a restaurant in Sydney. This version did not disappoint!
Just one thing to note about all the restaurants in Sydney, they typically charge the customer back for interchange (e.g. the fee that companies like MasterCard and Visa charge in order to use a credit card), as opposed to the U.S. where the restaurants themselves typically take the hit for the charge.
The rest of the day was spent resting, packing, purchasing omiyage (i.e. a gift or souvenir you give to friends, coworkers, and family after returning home from a trip) and eating food from the Chinese restaurant next to our hotel. I did want to give a shout out to the Radisson Hotel. The rooms were a little worn but the space made up for it in droves. We had a kitchen, dining room, living room, two bedrooms and two bathrooms. Emily loved getting to sleep on a twin bed right next to mine and it was great not to make the other members of our party keep it down when she had to take a nap.
It was time for the majority of the group to head home (my mom continued on to New Zealand) so Day 8 was spent commuting to the airport and enjoying the Asiana first class lounge before flying back to Honolulu via Seoul. I have to say, airplane food can be awesome.
My mom presented me with the most amazing offer in December 2016, go to Sydney with her and she would use her United miles to fly Emily and me (as well as my sister) to Sydney in first class (hello, flat bed seats). Done!
Using United Miles fly first class from Honolulu to Sydney via Seoul on Asiana Airlines.
Part I – Central Business District (see below for details)
Day 1: Check into Four Seasons Sydney, lunch at the Australian Heritage Hotel and visit the Wild Life Sydney Zoo.
Day 2: Breakfast at Kansas City Shuffle and visit to Taronga Zoo and the Sydney Eye.
Day 3: Breakfast at Four Seasons Sydney, tour the Rocks, visit the Sydney Opera House and the Royal Botanical Gardens, afternoon tea at Sir Stamford Circular Quay and back to Circular Quay for dinner.
Day 4: Relocate to Radisson Hotels and Suites in Darling Harbor, visit Madame Tussauds and the aquarium and enjoy a dinner from Harry’s Cafe du Wheels.
Day 5: Visit the Sydney Fish Market for breakfast, browse the boths at Paddington’s Market and take an evening ferry out to Manly,
Day 6: Walk from Congee to Bondi and visit Bondi Icebergs before heading back to Darling Harbor to eat dinner at Tetsuya’s.
Day 7: Visit the Queen Victoria Building and Hyde Park and eat a late lunch at Ippudo at the Westfield Shopping Center.
Day 8: Return home.
In order to use of my mom’s miles to fly first class to Sydney, we ended up flying on United’s partner airlines, Asiana, and taking a roundabout way of getting there via Seoul. While this caused us to double our flight time, those flat bed seats more than made up for the length.
The only problem was that Seoul was the worst airport I had ever visited for a layover. (Although I’ve had friends travel to Seoul as a destination airport and they loved it.) The problem with Seoul is they require you to go through security in order to get to your next gate, meaning that when you walk off the plane from your first flight you need to leave the secured area and go back through security again. Our flight departing from Seoul was two gates away from the gate we arrived at and yet it took us over an hour to walk out of the secured gating area, get through security again and go back into the secured gating area mere steps from where we initially arrived. On our way back to Hawaii the plane was delayed leaving by almost two hours to accommodate the layover travelers trying to make their way through security.
Four Seasons Sydney – One of the Best Hotels Out There:
Upon arriving in Sydney, we made our way to the first of two hotels we would be staying at, Four Seasons Sydney. Since we arrived early in the morning our room wasn’t ready yet but we were offered the use of their spa facilities in order to shower and change.
The room came with a mini-fridge and with a convenience store right across the street, we are able to be well-stocked morning, noon and night with any snack or drink we could want. The first night we had a knock at the door and opened it to find a gentlemen standing there with milk and cookies. Yum!
The view of the harbor was stunning and the location was great both during the day and at night.
The morning breakfast buffet while pricey, was one of the best buffets I’ve seen with a rotation of food items each day and very eclectic in what they were serving. We used Expedia to reserve the hotel room and it came with breakfast included so see if you can get a similar option if you stay here.
The location itself is perfect. My mom and sister were able to enjoy elegant restaurants just a short walk away while I felt perfectly safe and at easy walking around at night, pushing my toddler in her stroller while we visited the nearby fast food eateries. My mom got pretty sick while we were in Sydney and (while not cheap) a quick call down to the concierge was able to procure a doctor who visited us in our room, checked her out and provided her antibiotics that fixed her right up! Last but certainly not least, waiting for us on our bed when we checked in was a mini robe and bath slippers along with an adorable koala stuffed animal for Emily. That koala bear completely made our trip to Sydney for her.
25 hours, 2 flights, 2 countries and a shower later and we were ready to explore Sydney. First stop: eating kangaroo for lunch. We headed over to the Australian Heritage Hotel for a pizza filled with emu, kangaroo and crocodile. Sadly they were out of the crocodile pizza so we ordered a bacon pizza to sample with our “coat of arms” (the name of the emu and kangaroo pizza). You order from the bar instead of a waiter, which was a little more hectic when they were out of some of the beer that was supposed to be on tap as well as the crocodile but eventually we got our order placed. The problem came when we were eating the pizza a little while later and found two long black hairs baked into the cheese and dough of the pizza. No thank you. On a positive note, this ended up being the only disappointing meal of the entire trip.
Next up was the Wild Life Sydney Zoo. Back in 2016, I bought three adult Sydney 5-Attraction Passes which allowed us access to The Wild Life Sydney Zoo, The Sydney Tower Eye, Sydney Sea Life Aquarium, Madame Tussauds Sydney and the Manly Sea Life Sanctuary for $70/pass (Emily was free). I believe you can still get the $70 pass but it no longer includes the Manly Sanctuary, which closed its doors for the last time in January 2018. The Wild Life Sydney Zoo was pretty small, which means it was pretty expensive for what you got to see (an adult ticket will cost you $42 at the door), but perfect for four tired travelers including a toddler. It was a must-see stop on my itinerary because you could take pictures with koalas! Note: it is illegal to actually hold a Koala in New South Wales (as well as a couple other Australian territories), so pictures only.
There was a long line to take pictures with the koalas so if you go to the Wild Life Sydney Zoo make sure you get there early. On the plus side, there was snack bar and some zoo animals for bored children to color while waiting to take pictures.
Finally, exhausted after all the traveling and our mini zoo adventure we headed back to the room relax for the night.
Be forewarned, the most direct walking routes in Sydney tend to come with A LOT of stairs.
Our first full day in Sydney started with a delicious breakfast at Kansas City Shuffle. It was listed on almost every “best breakfasts in Sydney” lists I read and I was not disappointed.
After breakfast we made our way to Circular Quay in order to catch the F2 ferry out to Taronga Zoo. Talk about making an entrance. There are two ways to enter Taronga zoo, via an 18-minute walk up a hill or via the sky safari cable car (price for the ride is included with the entrance ticket). The car fit four of us plus my fold-able pram/stroller and was a wonderful way to enter the zoo.
Looking back on where we came from during our sky safari ride
The elephants and giraffes were our favorites!
One thing I learned about when building out our itinerary for Sydney was Taronga Zoo’s Roar & Snore Program where you get to sleep overnight in the zoo in a tent. Unfortunately. the youngest age allowed to participate in the Roar & Snore Program is 5 years old so Emily didn’t make the cut. If I ever get the chance to visit Sydney again I would definitely like to try this out.
After Taronga Zoo and a quick nap (because that’s what you do when you travel with a toddler) we headed back out again to the Sydney Tower Eye located at Westfield Shopping Center (included on our 5-attraction pass).
Since it was getting late we picked up food from the food court on level 5 (your starting point for the Sydney Tower Eye). Note: we picked up food from the first place we came to but the two best places in my book are Ippudo (discussed in my next post) and Din Tai Fung (my friend recently returned from Sydney and ate there more than once because she liked it so much).
One more thing to add about the Westfield Shopping Center is that the changing area for babies was AH-MAY-ZING!!! The one negative comment I have about Sydney is that changing tables are not as readily available as they are in the U.S. I felt so bad changing Emily from time to time on the dirty bathroom floor or balancing her on my thighs while I sat down on the toilet in order to turn my own body into a changing table for her. Then we arrived at Westfield and followed the signs to the baby changing area and found a parent’s dream come true. In case you couldn’t tell, Emily was very excited too.
As mentioned above, our room at the Four Seasons came with a free breakfast buffet so we gave it a try on Day 3, and it was amazing with its international options providing the perfect Scottish, Japanese, Indian, Australian or American breakfast buffet, just to name a few of the cuisines they featured. The going rate for the buffet is AUD 42 for adults and AUD 21.50 so see if there is an inclusive option when booking through Expedia or similar.
After breakfast it was time to start exploring the Rocks, the oldest area of Sydney covered with cobblestone streets and gorgeous views of the Harbor. From the Rocks we made our way to Circular Quay and finally back up to the Sydney Opera House to get an up close and personal look.
One thing I wanted to do at the Sydney Opera House was take in a play, ballet, musical… really anything. I figured with Emily in tow that wasn’t gong to be an option for me but the Opera House has a lot of options for kids of all ages. Unfortunately, in a rookie itinerary creation mistake I tried too late to get tickets and they were sold out during the dates I was available. So book early!
After soaking in the views from the Opera House we made our way to the Royal Botanic Gardens and Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair. The tranquil park in the middle of bustling Sydney was a surprising treat and we spent the rest of our morning looking at all the different flora, checking out the Opera House from a different vantage point and simply tumbling around on the grass.
A visit to Sydney did not seem complete to me without an afternoon of high tea, which we partook of at Sir Stamford at Circular Quay located right next to the Royal Botanic Gardens. What was great about the tea here is that they even had an option for our youngest traveler who would much rather enjoy a ham and mayo sandwich versus a curry puff (both were excellent).
That night my mom and sister enjoyed a lovely fine dining experience at Altitude Restaurant in the Shangri-La Hotel with unparalleled views of the city.
While not as fancy, I also thoroughly enjoyed my night out with Emily wandering through Sydney CBD and eating dinner at Four Frogs Crêperie and McDonalds, the former because both the savory and dessert crepe options were drool-worthy and the latter so that I could try the highly recommended (by an Aussie friend) sweet chili and sour cream fries.