Oahu, Hawaii Hiking – A Trip Report

While Oahu does not evoke visions of being a hiker’s paradise, several hiking options exist even for those vacationing with young kids. Hiking goes a long way in connecting with a terrain; moreover, in Oahu it adds variety to an otherwise beach-based sea of sameness vacation. Our hikes on the first day consisted of the Diamond Head Park, the Manoa Falls, and the University of Hawaii Manoa campus, the latter more of a walk than a trek.

Visitors to Oahu mostly tend to flock at one of the hotels around the Waikiki beach area. Diamond Head State Monument is less than 3 miles away from most of these hotels (Diamond Head Road, Honolulu, HI – Kalakaua Ave to Monsarrat to Diamond Head Road) making an early morning excursion effortless. The approach to the crater floor is through the Kahala Tunnel built in the 1940s. The toll booth, the information booth, and the parking area are located right there. The tunnel gate is open from 6 AM to 6 PM. Summer can be punishing so earlier the better. Entrance fee is $5 per vehicle or $1 to walk in. The trail is a very manageable distance 1.6 miles (both ways) but it is more than a leisurely stroll in the park – the climb which is over 550 feet from the crater floor involves steep stairways and an illuminated tunnel. Upwards of two hours should be ample for this adventure. Built in 1908 as part of the U.S. Army Artillery Defense System, this trail consists of the following:
  1. A nicely paved wide concrete walk way with a gentle slope gets you off to a great start (this is a recent addition to combat soil erosion),
  2. A dirt trail which winds up the steep interior slope and offers a lookout point near the end of the section – the concrete structure held a winch and cable to lift materials from the crater floor in the early days,
  3. A stairway of 74 concrete steps leading up to the first tunnel,
  4. A narrow 225-feet long tunnel,
  5. A spiral stairway of 99 steep steps whose peculiar construction design, with concrete structures on both sides supporting cross-beams, was intended to support camouflaging during military use. The entry to the Fire Control Station is from the top of the stairs,
  6. The Fire Control Station has four levels and is accessible through the spiral staircase. The approach to the summit was through a ladder which was replaced in the 1970s by a metal staircase of 54 steps.
At the summit, a pleasant breeze is the silent accompaniment to the outstanding views of the crater, the Waikiki beach, and the ocean. What better way to acknowledge this great hike than with Shave Ice, made the rage in 2009 by President Obama (him enjoying shaved ice while vacationing in Oahu is iconic). Vendors touting this delectable treat abound including one right by the parking lot. A short-drive away is the understated but famous Waiola Store (2135 Waiola Street) store where the classic rainbow and several other variations are on offer.

Manoa Falls provides a very varied rugged hiking route. As for getting there from the Waikiki area – from Kapiolani Boulevard, make a left on University Avenue through the campus, and right onto Manoa road. The campus of UH Manoa is a good detour and provides for a very fulfilling leisurely walk. Parking could be a problem when school is in session but all and sundry will love the beautiful Koi pond area behind the East-West Center across from the main campus area.

Manoa road dead-ends at the trail head – straight ahead for the trail and left for the arboretum. The trail, which is through a rainforest, can be slippery and wet while all is sunny and bright in nearby Waikiki. The path is steep and challenging at places but it was interesting to see some little ones taming the trail with ease. Lending credibility to the classic rainforest feel is a small stream alongside the trail coming from the falls – depending on the season, the stream can be just a trickle or more like a regular stream. The view of the falls is outstanding – again, the amount of water is highly seasonal – the water collects in a pool below with large boulders which though inviting is closed for swimming – it was closed to the public in the late 90s following a mudslide, for safety reasons. Proper footwear is an absolute must - a well-used one is ideal as by the time the hike is done, the shoe ceases to be anything but a sorry sight. At the entrance of the trail is what is called an environmentally friendly green bathroom – think reeking rather than nice and clean.

Near the Manoa Falls is the Tree Tops restaurant (formerly Paradise Park site) which doubles as an option for lunch and parking ($14 lunch buffet, $3 discount for kids). The Manoa Falls parking lot was not in operation when we visited. Moderate options for lunch are aplenty around the campus area. Ala Moana Shopping Center’s giant food court is another option.

Related Posts:

1. Oahu, Hawaii - Flora and Fauna - A Trip Report.
2. Oahu, Hawaii - Hiking - A Trip Report.
3. Oahu, Hawaii - Attractions - A Trip Report.

Last Updated: 02/2011.

Oahu, Hawaii Attractions – A Trip Report

We went on a 4-day trip to Oahu during the President’s Day weekend in 2010. The package deal from Pleasant Holidays which included round-trip tickets from San Francisco and accommodation in Oahu crested $2000 for the four of us. This was one time we indulged our kids – since Kindergarten, Hawaii was an oft visited place for some or other of their classmates.

A rental car goes a long way in making efficient use of the time in Oahu, unless the entire plan is sun worshiping in Waikiki – the island though small is still spread-out and public transportation is just a namesake option for tourists, as invariably time is lost hand over fist trying to follow their schedules.

This was a deviation from our regular airliner (Southwest) and the $20 baggage fee for the first item in United Airlines was so unpalatable that we chose to do carry-on baggage only. We learned we too could pack light and save time by shunning the baggage facility. Also, as car rentals centers are off-site and involve a shuttle it is best to factor in an additional hour. An additional expense seldom encountered at other places is the parking garage fee at the hotels which can average $20 per day.

As for residential neighborhoods, the suburbs win hands down in the nicer area category. Except for the areas right by the beach, most of the city areas of Honolulu are tailor-made for the working class - understandably so - most of the hotels are located around Waikiki Beach and the city of Honolulu surrounds Waikiki beach, making it a prime business and tourist location. Our hotel located in Kuhio Avenue, the first parallel street to Kalakaua Avenue that hugs Waikiki beach had great views of the ocean, but as the location was adjacent to International Marketplace, quiescence were not among its virtues as the night progressed. IHOP, Denny’s, and Chili’s were all within a few blocks and so were local options. Premium options like the Waikiki Starlight Luau at the Hilton Hawaii Village were also within walking distance.

Oahu has a number of free quality attractions. Below are the major attractions (not all free - see details):
  1. Arizona Memorial: Definitely a must for every American, this memorial is the site where the USS Arizona sank following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. It is the resting place of 1102 of the 1177 service men killed. To place in context, the overall death toll in the Pearl Harbor attack was 2350. The visitor center displays memorabilia related to the Pearl Harbor attack and also runs a 23-minute documentary film. A Navy boat provides transportation out to the 184-foot structure. It spans the mid-portion of the sunken battleship. It has observation areas and a shrine with a marble wall engraved with the names of those killed on the USS Arizona. There is a headcount limit at the memorial of around 4500 people per day, hence, it is better to plan this visit for earlier than later in the day (first tour – 7:45 AM), especially on holidays. Tickets and parking are both free. Also, as a security measure, no bags are allowed.
  2. Fire Works over Waikiki Beach: The fireworks is the finale of the Music and Dance show at the poolside of the Hilton Hawaii Village that happens every Friday at 7:45 PM and lasts 10 minutes – the event is known to keep Hawaiian time. The best location to experience the fireworks are from the beach or the concrete pier in front of the Outrigger Reef on the Beach hotel – either side of the hotel has public access pathway to the beach from Kalia (Parallel Street to Kalakaua). Tickets are $20 per person for the event with poolside seating and non hotel guests can participate as well.
  3. Kuhio Beach Hula Show: The one-hour show is at the Kuhio Beach Hula Mound on Waikiki Beach on Kalakau Avenue at Uluniu on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 6:30 PM. The event showcases authentic Hawaiian music, Hula performances, and entertaining commentary.
  4. Beaches: There are plenty of beaches in Oahu. Waikiki is the most popular and crowded. Hanauma Bay (100 Hanauma Bay Road, Honolulu, HI - $7.50 Fees for non-resident adults apply) is an extremely popular snorkeling destination – for snorkeling, it is best to be among the first as otherwise both parking and renting equipment can be an issue. North Bay beaches offer the best waves and relatively lesser crowds but by Oahu standards considered a long drive (30 miles) away.
  5. Hiking: Even though Oahu is not known for hiking, there are some outstanding opportunities around Oahu and most are free. Highlights include the hike to the Diamond Head Monument ($5 per vehicle fee applies – Diamond Head Road & 18th Avenue, Honolulu, HI - 0.8 mile one-way but still can be strenuous as you climb 560 feet and involve both steep stairways and a tunnel) and the Manoa waterfalls (3860 Manoa Road, Honolulu, HI - 0.8 mile one-way - slightly less strenuous, definitely not the beaten track).
  6. Others: Oahu has its share of attractions to visit, if time allows. Some of the best options include Pali Lookout (on Pali Highway 61), Bishop Museum (Fees apply - 1525 Bernice Street, Honolulu, HI), Punchbowl National Cemetery (2177 Puowaina Drive, Honolulu, HI), Waimea Valley Falls and Garden (substantial fees apply - 59-864 Kamehameha Highway), Byodo-In Temple (nominal fees - 47-200 Kahekili Highway, Kaneohe, HI), Polynesian Cultural Center (substantial fees - 55-370 Kamehameha Highway, Laie, HI), and the Cultural Gardens at the Honolulu Airport.
On our part, we checked out Waikiki beach the first day and joined the crowd for the Fire Works show. Hiking was the main activity on our second day, teeing off with an early morning hike to the Diamond Head State Monument and finishing with the Kuhio Beach Hula Show back in the Waikiki Beach area. Our final day was spent snorkeling at Hanauma Bay and with a trip to the North Shore in the afternoon. We had visited Arizona Memorial previously and so chose not to stop by there this time around.

Related Posts:

1. Oahu, Hawaii - Flora and Fauna - A Trip Report.
2. Oahu, Hawaii - Hiking - A Trip Report.
3. Oahu, Hawaii - Attractions - A Trip Report.

Last Updated: 02/2011.

Experience transferring utilities during a local move

We moved to a rental in Alameda a week ago (03/2010) after the sale of our primary home. As soon as a lease agreement is in place the next step is to coordinate address change with USPS and transferring all the utilities to the new address. This post is aimed at being a place holder for the various utilities that needs to be notified during a move and to help manage expectation when conducting business with them. Despite being monopolies, these steps largely went smooth although there are some caveats as can be seen from the details given below.

USPS Change of Address: It is recommended that this request be submitted at-least two weeks prior to the move date. The alternatives are
  • Online option: The movers guide section of the USPS website allows for submitting the form online – forwarding start date, type of move (permanent vs temporary), Name/Address, and Identity Verification (Credit card details input and a $1 charge) are the requisites.
  • Over the phone: 1-800-ASK-USPS ($1 verification fee applies) and performing a similar process,
  • Mail in: Use the online system, print, and mail the form (no $1 verification fee), or
  • In person: Submit the PS Form 3575 at the post office.
We chose the online process and it worked well.

Electric Power & Gas: The electric Power & Gas transfer was the easiest. All that was required was only a quick call to Alameda Power & Telecom (510-748-3900) and PG&E (1-800-743-5000) respectively. PG&E did question whether access was an issue at the new address.

Water: East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) offers two kinds of transfer fees - $16 applies for an online transaction or $32 for over the phone. We tried the cheaper online option, but having timed out twice, on the third attempt the system asked to call them. The information one is required to provide is the same either way and the process itself was smooth, although we were on the hook for the higher fee.

Recycling/Garbage Collection: Alameda County Industries (510-483-1400) sends star/stop forms upon request which needs to be filled up and submitted by fax or in-person (2307 Blanding Avenue, Alameda, CA-94501). A 3-month service deposit is required which is charged to your credit card (that information is requested on the start service form). They do a final pickup on the day of your usual pickup when your carts are taken (the id numbers on the cart are needed for the Start service form). New ones are delivered to the new address on the day of that pickup. Again, well-oiled operation.

Internet Service: AT&T DSL Internet Dry Loop Service transfer turned out to be the most disruptive step in this whole process. As this move came on the heels of the bad experience we encountered while trying to move from regular phone service to Vonage, we ensured we did due diligence this time around. We called the customer service a week early to get the process rolling. The customer service call (1-877-722-3755) itself went well and a transfer for the day of the move was double confirmed. A new account number and order number was also given. Imagine our horror, when the Internet ceased working within an hour! This meant our Vonage telephone service was down too. Called AT&T to check the status of the order and the automated system said the order was scheduled for the day we called – not the day of the move. After repeated calls to AT&T customer service, our request was escalated and a new order created and they informed that it had to be done with a new voice number as otherwise the delay will be longer. The rest of the day saw no progress but on the following day an AT&T rep showed up at the house wanting to hook up a voice line. He was oblivious about our situation and we were left with a dial-tone on the phone line and could receive in-coming calls (no outbound calls), although this was NOT what was requested. After wasting more time waiting on the customer support line we decided enough was enough so called AT&T and cancelled the request to have DSL reinstated for the remaining days at the old address. Needless to say, we went through the same drill of having to take emergency time-off from work and having to be content with 2-hour one-way commutes for the rest of the week. Once we moved, to our surprise, things went smoothly, and we had DSL and Vonage service up and running in no time. A couple of days later, the new owners at our old house informed us that AT&T customer service had informed them that they had NEVER received a request from us to cancel the voice line – surprise, surprise! Words fail us!

Telephone Service: For Vonage telephone service, nothing special is required, but you do need Internet access!

Everglades National Park - A Trip Report

Everglades is by far the most recognized of the four National Parks in southern Florida – the Big Cypress National Preserve (around 730,000 acres), the Biscayne National Park on the West Coast just outside Miami (around 175,000 acres), the Dry Tortugas National Park seventy miles from Key West (seven remote islands with a combined area of over 64,000 acres), and the Everglades (over 1.5 million acres). The Big Cypress National Preserve which is to the north east of Everglades was established in 1974 and the preserve allows with permits a wider-range of activities such as hunting, off-road vehicle use, and oil drilling. Biscayne National Park protects a marine ecosystem consisting of mangrove shorelines, a shallow bay, undeveloped islands, living coral reefs and is an ideal water-based recreation spot - fishing, canoeing, camping at the Boca Chita and Elliott Keys (primitive), and boat tours.

More than its sheer enormity, it is the unique ecosystem of the Everglades National Park that commands attention. The entire park area never exceeds an elevation of eight feet above sea level accounting for the giant swamp that is Everglades. The Kissimmee River basin in central Florida is responsible for the origin of this marshy land – during the wet summer months, flooding in the river basin results in a built-up shallow lake with an average depth of just 12 feet, but covering an area of 730 square miles (Okeechobee). The overflow results in the wide shallow river (“River of Grass” – 50 miles in width, one to six inches deep and moving at the rate of just 100 feet per day) flowing southward to the Gulf of Mexico in a gentle slope. The wet season is followed by six months of dry season. This creates a distinctive ecosystem that the wildlife at the Everglades has adapted to and they are in fact dependent on this natural cycle. The river empties into the Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico creating a mix of fresh and salt water in the coastal areas, an ideal setting for mangrove forests. This park created in 1947 with the primary aim of saving the Glades is the first National Park created to protect a threatened ecological system. Water controls, exploitation, and the invasion of foreign species in that order are the primary reasons for the precarious situation at the Everglades. Case in point – the water controls has resulted in a reduction in the number of wading birds nesting in the Everglades over 90% in the last 75 years. The situation can be extended to all the major species distinct to the Everglades.

There are four visitor centers but if time allows only for a day-trip, it is best to focus the trip around one of those visitor centers. The visitor centers are:
  1. Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center – Open daily from 8 AM to 5 PM (May thru November 9 AM to 5 PM), this center is the easiest to access from Miami – zip down Florida Turnpike south to the last exit and follow signs. Four miles past is the Royal Palm Visitor Center which is also open daily and provides certain ranger led activities. A couple of trails are also on offer at this site: the Anhinga Trail a 0.8 mile loop trail and the Gumbo Limbo Trail a 0.4 mile loop.
  2. Flamingo Visitor Center – Open from late November till May 1st, this visitor center is located 38 miles south east of the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center and can be arrived at by following the Main Park Road from the Coe Visitor Center, a scenic route with a number of trails from the park areas scattered along. The trails include the Pinelands Trail a 0.4 mile loop through sub-tropical pine forest, Pa-hay-okee overlook a 0.2 mile boardwalk that leads to an observation deck with panoramic views, Mahogany Hammock Trail a 0.4 mile boardwalk that goes through a dense hardwood hammock and the Westlake Trail a 0.4 mile boardwalk through Mangrove forests – an eclectic collection, no doubt! The visitor center itself is modest with a few exhibits and they issue wilderness permits. There are campsites (reservations recommended – 800-365-CAMP), canoeing (suggested routes include the 5.5 mile Nine Mile Pond Trail and others) kayaking, and boat tour options. A convenience store and gas station are at hand. A lodge and a restaurant were in operation at this site until the hurricane of 2005.
  3. Gulf Coast Visitor Center – Open daily from 8AM to 4:30 PM (May thru November – 9AM to 4:30 PM), this visitor center is located 3 miles south of Hwy 41 (Tamiami Trail) on Highway 29 in Everglades City. Wilderness permits are available from the visitor center. Picnic areas, marinas, several boat launching facilities, boat tours into the mangrove estuary and Ten Thousand Islands are on offer (tickets at the lower level of the visitor center). Canoeing/kayaking into the Ten Thousand Islands is popular as it provides a great opportunity to observe the birds, dolphins, manatees, etc – rentals available at the lower level of the visitor center.
  4. Shark Valley Visitor Center – Open daily from 8:45 AM to 5:15 PM (December thru April 9:15 AM to 5:15 PM), this visitor center can be arrived at by following Hwy 41 (Tamiami Trail) 30 miles west of the Florida Turnpike exit for S.W 8th Street. There are three trails available from the visitor center – the Bobcat Boardwalk trail a 0.4 mile loop that passes through saw grass marsh and a bayhead, Otter Cave trail a 1-mile loop that goes through a tropical hardwood hammock, and the 15-mile tram trail which can be experienced either by a tram tour or by biking.
Our day-trip was focused around the Shark Valley Visitor Center as it seemed to offer the biggest bang. By 10 AM the parking lot at the visitor center was at capacity, and we were behind a line of cars waiting to get in. Since patience was never one of our virtues, we parked along the roadside and walked in. Waiting in line would also have worked equally well, for spaces do open up at a rapid pace. Entrance fee is $20 per vehicle or $10 per pedestrian – they inquired at the entrance whether our car was parked outside and charged $20 for the four of us.

Even from the entrance, it is evident that in this exotic place we humans are mere visitors as wild birds, alligators, turtles etc. silently but firmly claim the territory as theirs. Whether the timing of our visit made any difference we do not know but it was simply divine to feast our eyes in these many wild birds and animals, and that too in their environment – maybe this is the mystique of a safari! There was no holding back in either quantity or quality.

The two smaller trails are both good allowing one to appreciate the exclusive flora and fauna of the place. The “not-to-be-missed” attraction however at the site is the 15-mile trail. The options are either to bike on your own or to partake in a 2-hour ranger led tram tour. Should you opt for the tram tour, plan to purchase the tickets as early as possible, for though we reached the ticket counter by 10:15 AM, we had to settle for the 1 PM tour. The tram-tour tickets came to $56 for the four of us. The tour itself is just outstanding – alligators, turtles, birds of various feathers including the endangered wood stork, ibis, spoonbills, anhinga, owls, egrets, and butterflies in large volume all added to the variety. The park ranger was very knowledgeable with a very high energy level that all of us on the tour came back with a greater understanding of the Everglades and its distinctive ecosystem – the tree islands in the vast prairie called “tropical hardwood hammocks”, smaller shrubbery islands called the “bayheads” and the Borrow Pits (artificial ponds formed when stones to build the scenic road were dug-out) were all pointed out and explained in great detail. The observation tower at the mid-point of the loop (farthest point) provides for a nice leisurely walk up from which one can appreciate panoramic view of the prairies. Right underneath the observation tower, a big colony of giant alligators was basking in the sun. On a side-note, the park ranger said most of the dead fish (after the early January freeze in Florida that year) in the clear stream were exotic fish introduced by humans as opposed to the native ones.

Having a good supply of water is compulsory, independent of the mode of travel. A cautionary note to bikers – bike route is counter clockwise of the tram route, giving the people in the tram a chance to observe the actions of the bikers – in general, too many of them were either too close to the alligators or were not inclined to be responsible riders (even the mandatory stopping for the tram was a tall order for some) - some bikers appeared unaware of the potential danger involved - we saw a biker falling off his bike and landing just a few feet away from a baby alligator - baby alligators are best left alone for it means the mama alligator is nearby.

Airboat tours and “alligator shows” are a sizable industry in the border areas of the park – they are not allowed inside the park as they affect the ecosystem in a negative way. Should you decide to go for one of these, one option is to choose the Miccosukee Indian Air Boat ride, offered just opposite the visitor center turning – the tickets are comparatively lighter on the wallet and also include a visit to the authentic Indian camp at the heart of the Everglades. The restaurant at the site is also a good reasonably priced choice.

Related Posts:
  1. A Trip Report to Kennedy Space Center, FL.
  2. Key West, FL - A Trip Report.
Last Updated: 02/2011.

Key West, FL - A Trip Report

After Cape Canaveral we motored down a lengthy stretch to Key West. We started early from the town of Cocoa Beach and factored in some short stops in order to experience the storied sunset at Mallory Square in Key West on time.

Whenever we visit new places we tend to absorb it from a potential resident’s angle by planning detours into the residential areas, university campus and/or downtown areas. Both Fort Lauderdale and Cocoa Beach areas fell shy on this count though ‘twixt the two the town of Cocoa Beach fared better. Also, it is obvious that Florida’s economy is geared more towards the older generation than it is to the youth - explains why so many of the younger folks choose to leave the Sunshine State while the older folks yearn to retire there. The climate and the housing prices are definitely appealing to Californians. Miami on the other hand, lived up to its metropolitan image. The turquoise beaches along with well-maintained infrastructure promote a touristy feel.

The drive from Cocoa Beach to Miami along the semi-marshy landscape, though mundane is distinct. We used to doubt stories of Floridians regaling about alligators showing up uninvited in their swimming pools, but not anymore!

The drive from Miami to Key West surpassed our imagination. The welcome change in scenery from Key Largo to Key West is not just a glimpse and gone forever, for it spans 140 miles. Such is the lure of the landscape that one cannot but be thankful that the traffic pace is a slow one. Vista points are dotted throughout. Small green islands hugging the Atlantic in a serene setting is truly postcard material. In all there are 42 bridges connecting the islands. The icing on the cake is the encore of the scenery on the way back.

Tourism is the main industry and so there is no dearth of activities. When we reserved our lodging online, the area came across as expensive and the moderate accommodation we settled on was still over $150 per night. In hindsight, one alternative that would have worked was not to book in advance – the place was teeming with smaller places offering accommodation at affordable rates.

Below are some of the “not-to-miss” sites one can experience for free on a visit to Key West:
  1. Walk the 7-mile bridge: This is a historic railway bridge constructed between 1908 and 1912 which was later converted for use by automobiles in 1935. A brand-new bridge serves the motorists now while the old bridge gives a chance to stretch the limbs in the form of a nice leisurely hike. Our highlight was seeing giant sting-rays waltzing up.
  2. Key Deer Sighting: Key Deer is the smallest sub-species of Virginia white-tailed deer found on 25 islands in the lower keys. The islands covering over 84,000 acres is the National Key Deer Refuge aimed at protecting the endangered 600 to 750 population. The best way to view them is to go for hikes in the refuge accessible from Key Deer Boulevard and Wilder road, both off of Highway 1 at Big Pine Key between Marathon and Key West proper. There is also a Visitor Center on Big Pine Key Plaza at 179 Key Deer Boulevard. We were lucky to stumble upon a grazing herd and later see them leaping away at dawn along Highway 1.
  3. Mallory Square Sunset: To get to Mallory Square, take a right on North Roosevelt Boulevard (becomes Truman Ave.) at the end of US 1 immediately after crossing the bridge into Key West and at Simonton, take a right and the parking lot at Greene Street is very convenient – hourly pricing is reasonable and credit cards can be used. There is a City Parking Lot closer to the square, at Front and Wall Street but reaches capacity fast. A short walk through Duval Street gets one to Mallory Square. The place is abuzz with activities complete with several curio shops, restaurants, the glass bottom boat ticket counters, conch tour train depot, water scooters, and several other options huddled around a beautiful public boulevard right along the coast – the place is an ideal location to view the sunset. It does get crowded and seating is limited and so the earlier the better. Talented street artists entertain with their skills and it is a good feel to be one with the crowd. Conversations in different languages, the jazz music wafting across, the sunset cruises along with the birds, and the very beautiful sunset itself all blend together harmoniously providing a wonderful experience for all and sundry.

Below are other attractions and activities in and around Key West:
  1. Water Sports and Sails: Scuba diving, Parasailing, Fishing, Kayaks, Snorkeling, etc. are all available at Key West. For the undecided, we would recommend a tour of the Dry Tortugas National Park. Dry Tortugas are seven remote islands around 70 miles west of Key West. It features coral reefs ideal for snorkeling along with white sandy beaches. Day trips (9 hours) while expensive (around $150) are excellent and include snorkeling in 4-7 feet of water (considered one of the best snorkeling locations in the world) along with visits to the historic site – Dry Tortugas has the largest brick structure in the Western Hemisphere (Fort Jefferson). Breakfast and Lunch are also included and the 70-mile trip is offered in a high-speed catamaran or ferry. For those short on time, the 2-hour Glass Bottom Boat Ride (around $45) is a good option- it is an informative eco tour that allows one to view the coral reef and sea life without getting wet.
  2. Museums: The Harry S. Truman Little White House (111 Front Street – Florida’s only presidential museum where Truman spent 175 days of presidency) and the Hemingway Museums are the best known but there are several others including the Pirate Soul Museum (524 Front Street), Mel Fisher Treasure Museum (200 Greene Street), Key West Shipwreck Museum (1 Whitehead Street at Mallory Square), Ripley’s Believe it or not (108 Duval Street), Audubon House & Tropical Gardens (205 Whitehead Street), and the Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory (511 Caroline Street – voted the #1 attraction in Key West by People’s choice awards for a number of years).
  3. Arts and Cultural Events: Key West is a choice location for artists and as such many such events take place in the area through-out the year. Check-out KeysArts.com before your trip to determine what is available during your trip.

In case all these options make you want to settle down there, here are a few deterrents before rushing to seek realtor services:
  1. Housing is expensive – a small, fixer-upper of a single family home (1250 sqft) in Duck Key (mile marker 62) was seen listed at a whopping $595,000 – it was not on the ocean but, there are views from the upper bedrooms.
  2. The main industries are tourism and/or water based, if those are not in your skill set, it may be hard to land a job.
  3. Most of the construction around Key West rests on stilts to avoid flooding – a harsh reminder that the elements are very much out there.
  4. Switching schools is not an option. Neither is getting anywhere fast.
Being a little bit out of the way is part of the real charm of Key West. As noted above, there is a myriad of activities to choose from. One can easily use a week to soak up Key West. But, as one can gather from our notes, even a whirl-wind tour of the area is indeed worthwhile.

Related Posts:
  1. A Trip Report to Kennedy Space Center, FL.
  2. A Trip Report to Everglades, FL.
Last Updated: 02/2011.

A Trip Report to Kennedy Space Center

During the 3rd weekend of January (2010), we made a 5-day trip to Florida on a mission to cover as much as possible of the coastal regions between Cape Canaveral and Key West along with a day-trip to the Everglades National Park. We gave Orlando and the Gulf Region a miss altogether. Our flight was into Fort Lauderdale – the other popular options are Orlando, Miami, Tampa, and Jacksonville.

Kennedy Space Center (KSC) is located in Cape Canaveral. The approach road takes on a deserted appeal as you close in to KSC – security restrictions coupled with the fact that the 3-mile radius of the launch facility is strictly out-of-bounds explains this. En-route from the west is the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame building and the Indian River. Admission at Kennedy Space Center is around $40 for Adults and around $30 for kids – expensive compared to the pricing at Houston Space Center. But, this pricing also includes admission to the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame which we missed out as our limited time allowed covering only the attractions in the main facility.

As an FYI, from 1968 to date KSC has been the launch site for all US manned space flights, while its neighbor Cape Canaveral Air Force Station conducts the unmanned civilian launches. Also KSC is considered as part of the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge which was established by National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in its quest for space exploration way back in 1963 and as such it is illegal to kill wildlife within the facility.

The attractions at the main Visitor Center include:

a) The Kennedy Space Center Bus Tour: There are three stops on this tour which starts at 10 AM and operates continuously every 15 minutes. Though forty four air-conditioned buses are around to accommodate everyone, there is still some waiting involved. We were in by 10 AM and headed straight to the tour boarding area when the line was minimal and the wait was only around 15 minutes. The tour is estimated to take between 2.5 to 3 hours per their brochure – from our experience that is on the optimistic side for it took us well over four hours which included the lunch at Moon Rock Café (Apollo/Saturn V Center stop). All buses are operated by well-informed, keen-eyed personnel and suddenly the tour is a blend of all sciences. We saw a variety of birds, alligators, and even an eagle’s nest! There are three stops on the tour and after each stop it is a different bus.
  • Launch Complex 39 Observation Gantry – the main attraction here is the gantry, a rectangular structure with stairs and elevator to reach the top from which there are panoramic views of the shuttle launch pads, the Crawlerway, the vehicle assembly building, and the Canaveral National Seashore. It also showcases a shuttle engine. The views are amazing but the most interesting was the Crawlerway – a wide gravel road from the shuttle assembly facility to the launch sites. The weight of the shuttle makes it impossible to transport through normal roads and hence a layered gravel surface is specifically laid and a giant tank (crawler-transporter) - transports it. The journey typically takes upwards of six hours for the 3.4 miles – the transporter is powered by two 2750 horsepower diesel engines, but still manages a speed of only 1 mph loaded. The stop also has an interactive exhibit area, a briefing film, and a small facility that serves light snacks.
  • Apollo/Saturn V CenterThis is a full-fledged facility with two theaters, a 363-foot moon rocket, a well-stocked eatery (Moon Rock Café), and several other displays. The Firing Room Theater re-creates an Apollo Launch and features the original Apollo moon-launch equipment, complete with IBM T-shirts wrapped over circa-1950 chairs. The Lunar Theater depicts the first moon landing.
  • International Space Station Center – This is a tour of the real-life facility where all the Space Station Tour preparations happen. One gets to really appreciate the hugely complex endeavor of constructing the International Space Station.
b) Shuttle Launch Experience: This is a simulation of the shuttle launch where around twenty people are seated inside a capsule (restricted to participants taller than 48 inches, health based restrictions also apply) watching a movie that attempts to simulate the shuttle launch – the capsule moves and the seat tilts and shakes and there is also the 3G effect thrown in as a bonus. Bags and cameras need to be stowed away - lockers are provided just outside the entrance and a quarter is all that is required to access it. As this is the most popular attraction at the site the lines can get long. Our total wait was less than 30-minutes even though our timing could have been better – it was right after the bus tour around 2 PM when the line was substantially long and the wait time displayed outside showed 40 minutes. The experience consists of two sessions – a preparatory commentary with some simulations and a giant display that get you prepared for the “journey” and the actual simulation ride. Despite the popularity, we rate this experience below average for it was not much different from some of the rides we have experienced at other theme parks.

c) IMAX Movie – Magnificent Desolation – Walking on the Moon: A 40-minute wonderful experience that attempts to simulate a moon landing and moon walk using a 3-D movie and commentary by Tom Hanks. This was the first 3-D experience for our kids and we found them repeatedly trying to touch the projections, which reminded us of our first 3-D experience many years back. We rate this movie among the best IMAX movies we have seen so far.

d) IMAX Movie – Space Station: A 45-minute movie which show the day-to-day activities of the Space Station crew in 3-D with narration by Tom Cruise. While we adults were captive audience again, the kids found it a bit boring and long-winded.

e) Shuttle Explorer – This is a self-guided walk-through of a full-scale orbiter replica.

f) Others: There are many other attractions in and around the main visitor center and those include – Astronaut Encounter a 25-minute “Meet a Real Astronaut” event, Rocket Garden Tours, Launch Status Center with live briefings, a new gallery that showcase images from the Hubble Space Telescope, NASA Art Gallery, and a Children’s play dome (restricted to kids under 48 inches tall).

A day-trip is barely enough to experience what is on offer at KSC. Ideally, this should be absorbed in two days and that is probably why the tickets are valid for two days. Additional time should be set aside for exploring the other parts of the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and Cocoa Beach.

KSC was very inspirational for our kids so much so that one of them has firmly decided to become an astronaut and the other into ground operations. President Kennedy’s famous words announcing the moon-launch “we choose to go to the moon, not because it is easy but because it is hard” has become choice words in our house hold. Overall, we rate KSC among the Top Five sights in the US and rank it first for inspiration for it made believers of our kids.

Related Posts:
  1. A Trip Report to Key West, FL.
  2. A Trip Report to Everglades, FL.
Last Updated: 02/2011.

VOIP Number Transfer from AT&T to Vonage – An experience to forget fast!

Who envisioned that the innocuous sign-up for VOIP via Vonage - the much publicized number transfer option would trigger an avalanche of headache from our service provider AT&T.

Sign-up was a breeze at the Vonage web-site and they shipped the hardware promptly. The number transfer process with AT&T, who also managed our DSL Service, however was a different ballgame altogether. Per their reps, the process involves:
  1. Requesting a phone number transfer, and
  2. Signing-up for a dry-loop Internet service.
The phone number transfer will also disconnect the Internet service as that is tied to the phone number. The service rep assured us that the Internet service transfer to dry-loop will happen the very same day and involves only re-registration once connectivity is established. We shook hands on that and signed up. As detailed below, the timeline of what ensued was contrary to our expectation:
  1. 2/16 – Signed up for VOIP at the Vonage site and at their request asked AT&T to separate DSL from phone line to facilitate transfer. AT&T on their part informed the pricing would increase to $40 from $30 for the Internet service and that jack work may be involved. Relayed this to Vonage and came to know that this is automatic with Verizon, and again at their request notified AT&T that any jack work will be handled by Vonage. AT&T signed us up for their Internet only account and advised that the switchover will happen on the 22nd and that while the Internet connection in itself would be transparent, re-registration may be necessary. They did ask us to check back and confirm old accounts were closed after ensuring that both the internet connection and the phone line with the new service were working to our satisfaction.
  2. 2/17 – Vonage account showed request to transfer phone link as sent.
  3. 2/18 – Vonage account indicated request to transfer as acknowledged.
  4. 2/20 – Voice mail from AT&T explaining the order is delayed due to some cable work with an ETA of 3-5 business days. It was also mentioned they will call on Friday to follow-up on whether repair has been completed and to provide status information.
  5. 2/22 – Mail from AT&T dated 2/17 informing on the new Internet service beginning on 2/25 starting at 8 PM.
  6. 2/25 – Around 9:30 AM, the DSL died. Immediately contacted AT&T and they assured the Internet connection switchover should happen within a 4-hour window and that they would check on this and call back if there are any glitches. Around 11:15, the phone line also went down. With no phone or DSL our feelings can be captured by this one word – HELPLESS! Called AT&T multiple times to get this situation resolved. This is when things really started to unwind as each rep guided us differently – one said we may have to wait till 3/1 (two business days needed for dry loop) while another said a callback can be expected as early as 8 PM.
  7. 2/26 – After repeated calls to the following numbers (they try to transfer one back and forth between these numbers – 1-866-346-1168, 1-877-722-3755, 1-866-325-5079, 1-800-288-2020 – they drop the connection too), one rep said our order information for the new service mentions that it will be done on and only on 3/1/2010. Our request for an escalation did not get anywhere – although it meant a number of emergency days off from work.
  8. 2/27 – Mail from AT&T dated 02/25 with almost the exact same contents the only change was the activation date indicated 03/01. No details on why our existing Internet and Telephone line were disconnected.
  9. 3/1 – AT&T Rep came to the house and tinkered awhile outside. The modem showed Green light, but still unable to access any website – it automatically routes to a site that asks to call customer service as they detected a problem with my account. Called AT&T and was parked for half an hour. Later went through their welcome mailing and found the site address to register. Tried it and voila, we have access!
  10. 3/1 – Called back to make sure my old account is closed per their request. The service numbers all say the standard “office is closed…” message as it is past 5PM.
Looking back, it is clear AT&T basically disconnected our service although their systems clearly warned that the new service will come online only a number of days later. This is horrible service, to say the least, in this day and age. For those who rely on this service for their daily bread this was a hit below the belt. On our part, we have resolved to report this wherever we can and this blog post is part of an effort to spur action. We have also commenced trying to find alternate (hopefully better) service in our area.


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