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Monday, May 29, 2006

Florida: Land of Sunshine

Although it's the state nickname, describing Florida as the Sunshine State is like calling Katie Couric "perky." Sure, it's true, but not all the time -- and it doesn't nearly begin to describe the state's other marketable assets. There's a lot more to the state than just sunshine -- which, by the way, isn't even a 24/7 given; it does rain here. Weather aside, choosing the best of Florida is by no means simple.

While millions of visitors flock to Florida to escape the bleakness of winter and landlocked locations, they don't all come down for sun, fun, and Mickey Mouse. Granted, the promise of (mostly) clear skies and 800 miles of sparkling, sandy beaches is alluring, as are the animatronics and roller coasters in Orlando and Tampa, but there's much more to the state than that. In fact, in many ways, Florida is like a beautiful, blond beauty queen whom everyone thinks is all fluff until they find out she happens to be a Rhodes scholar. More than meets the eye has made this one of the country's most popular year-round vacation destinations.

Here you can choose from a colorful, often kitschy assortment of accommodations, from deluxe resorts to mom-and-pop motels. You can visit remote little towns like Apalachicola or a multicultural megalopolis like Miami. You can devour fresh seafood, from amberjack to oysters -- and then work off those calories in such outdoor pursuits as bicycling, golfing, or kayaking. Despite overdevelopment in many parts of the state, Floridians have maintained thousands of acres of wilderness areas, from the little respite of Clam Pass County Park in downtown Naples to magnificent Everglades National Park, which stretches across the state's southern tip.

Choosing the "best" of all of this is a daunting task. You'll find numerous outstanding resorts, hotels, destinations, activities, and attractions in Florida. And with an open mind and a sense of adventure, you'll come up with bests of your own.

To a large extent, the timing of your visit will determine how much you'll spend -- and how much company you'll have -- once you get to Florida. That's because room rates can more than double during the high seasons, when countless visitors migrate to Florida.

The weather determines the high seasons. In subtropical South Florida, high season is during the winter, from mid-December to mid-April. On the other hand, you'll be rewarded with incredible bargains if you can stand the heat and humidity of a South Florida summer between June and early September. In North Florida, the reverse is true: Tourists flock here during the summer, from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

Hurricane season runs from June to November and, as seen in 2004, when Florida was hit by four hurricanes in a row, you never know what can happen. Pay close attention to weather forecasts during this season and always be prepared.

Presidents' Day weekend in February, Easter week, Memorial Day weekend at the end of May, the Fourth of July, Labor Day weekend at the start of September, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's are busy throughout the state, especially at Walt Disney World and the other Orlando-area attractions, which can be packed any time school's out.

Northern and southern Florida share the same "shoulder seasons": April through May, and September through November, when the weather is pleasant throughout Florida and hotel rates are considerably lower than during the high seasons. If price is a consideration, these months of moderate temperatures and fewer tourists are the best times to visit.

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Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Hawaii - Islands of Adventure

Maui, also called the Valley Isle, is just a small dot in the vast Pacific Ocean, but it has the potential to offer visitors unforgettable experiences: floating weightless through rainbows of tropical fish, standing atop a 10,000-foot volcano watching the sunrise color the sky, listening to the raindrops in a bamboo forest.

Whether you want to experience the "real" Hawaii, go on a heart-pounding adventure, or simply relax on the beach, this place should be the vacation of your dreams.

It can be bewildering to plan your trip to Hawaii with so many options vying for your attention; to make your task easier, this section highlights what I consider the very best that Maui has to offer.

Branch out while you're in Maui; do something you wouldn't normally do -- after all, you're on vacation. Below is a list of adventures I highly recommend. Some are a bit pricey, but these splurges are worth every penny.

Scuba Diving: You're in love with snorkeling and the chance to view the underwater world, but it's just not enough -- you want to get closer and see even more. Take an introductory scuba dive; after a brief lesson on how to use the diving equipment, you'll plunge into the deep to swim with the tropical fish and go eyeball to eyeball with other marine critters.

Skimming over the Ocean in a Kayak: Glide silently over the water, hearing only the sound of your paddle dipping beneath the surface. This is the way the early Hawaiians traveled along the coastline. You'll be eye level and up close and personal with the ocean and the coastline, exploring areas you can't get to any other way. Venture out on your own or go with an experienced guide -- either way, you won't be sorry.

Exploring a Lava Tube: Most people come to Maui to get outdoors and soak up some Hawaiian sunshine, but don't miss the opportunity to see firsthand how volcanic islands were formed. With Maui Cave Adventures (tel. 808/248-7308), you can hike into the subterranean passages of a huge, extinct lava tube with 40-foot ceilings -- an offbeat adventure and a geology lesson you won't soon forget.

Seeing the Stars from Inside a Volcanic Crater: Driving up to see the sunrise is a trip you'll never forget, but to really experience Haleakala, plan to hike in and spend the night. To get a feel for why the ancient Hawaiians considered this one of the most sacred places on the island, you simply have to wander into the heart of the dormant volcano, where you'll find some 27 miles of hiking trails, two camping sites, and three cabins.

Hiking to a Waterfall: There are waterfalls, and there are waterfalls; the magnificent 400-foot Waimoku Falls, in Oheo Gulch outside of Hana, are worth the long drive and the uphill hike you have to take to get there. The falls are surrounded by lush green ferns and wild orchids, and you can even stop to take a dip in the pool at the top of Makahiku Falls on the way.

Flying over the Remote West Maui Mountains: Your helicopter streaks low over razor-thin cliffs, then flutters past sparkling waterfalls and down into the canyons and valleys of the inaccessible West Maui Mountains. There's so much beauty to absorb that it all goes by in a rush. You'll never want to stop flying over this spectacular, surreal landscape -- and it's the only way to see the dazzling beauty of the prehistoric area of Maui.

Taking a Drive on the Wild Side: Mother Nature's wild side, that is -- on the Kahekili Highway on Maui's northeast coast. This back-to-nature experience will take you past ancient Hawaiian heiau (temples); along steep ravines; and by rolling pastures, tumbling waterfalls, exploding blowholes, crashing surf, and jagged lava coastlines. You'll wander through the tiny Hawaiian village of Kahakuloa and around the "head" of Maui to the Marine Life Conservation Area of Honolua-Mokuleia and on to the resort of Kapalua. You'll remember this adventure for years.

Riding a Mule to Kalaupapa: Even if you have only 1 day to spend on Molokai, spend it on a mule. The Molokai Mule Ride (tel. 800/567-7550) trek from "topside" Molokai to the Kalaupapa National Historic Park (Father Damien's world-famous leper colony) is a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. The cliffs are taller than 300-story skyscrapers, and the narrow 3-mile trail includes 26 dizzying switchbacks, but Buzzy Sproat has never lost one of his trustworthy mules (or any riders) on the difficult trail. The mules make the trek daily, rain or shine.

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