#Kauai: Learning To Take Better Photos

The view from the temple. It sits high on a ridge overlooking the north fork of the Wailua River.
A sweeping view from the temple grounds, set high on a ridge overlooking the north fork of the Wailua River, and looking out to Mt. Wai’ale’ale.


The day before we left on our Mystery Vacation, I had the opportunity to go with my good friend Mary Bartnikowski up to the Kaua’i Hindu Temple in Wailua to learn how to take better photos. As you know from her posts here, Mary has been a professional photographer for many years, and one of the services she offers here on Kaua’i are one-on-one or small group sessions where she shares her experience to help you improve your picture taking . . . with any camera. When I had mentioned to her one day that I honestly needed one of her sessions, Mary’s reply had been, “Let’s do it!” The stars aligned with good weather and time off for both of us on that Tuesday.

Capturing micro-shots
Capturing micro-shots

My camera is a five year-old Panasonic Lumix with a Leica lens, which I learned from Mary is actually a pretty darn good camera (she has used one for paid commercial photo shoots). However, other than knowing how to charge the battery and use the zoom feature, my camera was mostly a mystery to me. I knew nothing about how to use its many features, or what it was capable of.

The temple grounds were filled with gorgeous orchids
The temple grounds were filled with gorgeous orchids just begging for us to take a close-up shot.

A few days before we were to get together, I downloaded Mary’s free book, Secrets of Stunning Photographs, gleaning lots from the great tips she shares. It was genuinely a fun and interesting read and I learned quite a bit. But, as I’m primarily a hands-on learner, I was especially excited about the opportunity to actually get out and take pictures, getting feedback from Mary as I snapped away.


The day of our session, the first thing we did was to sit down and go over the features on my camera, and how to access and use them. For example, I had no idea how to use the manual setting, and set f-stops and such. I learned about all sorts of other options on the camera that I had no idea existed, let alone how to find them (like leveling).

Wearing a sarong over my slacks
Wearing a sarong over my slacks

Then we were off to the temple, which turned out to be barely a mile away from our previous house! Why had we never visited the temple while we lived there? It’s absolutely gorgeous. Entrance to the temple grounds is free, but women are required to wear a skirt, and men in shorts need to cover their legs as well. The temple thoughtfully and thankfully provides sarongs for visitors to meet the dress code.

Another view of the Wailua River
A closer view of the Wailua River. This was a tricky picture to capture because of the light. Get it wrong (which I did several times) and you can’t see the water flowing between the trees.

It didn’t take much encouragement to begin taking pictures immediately, with Mary offering feedback about lighting, and how to best position my photo subject in the frame to create a more interesting photo. We wandered through the breathtakingly beautiful temple grounds for nearly an hour, while I practiced both close-up and distance photos as well as using the automatic and the manual settings. I found myself using tips from Mary’s book as I went along, and watched and learned as well from what and how she was photographing as we walked through the grounds.

Light filtering through the roots of a giant banyan tree. There’s nothing here though that really grabs your eye.
A much improved photo taken under the same tree. Light it still filtering through the roots, but the statue adds much more interest.
A much better photo taken under the same tree. Light is still filtering through the roots, but the statue adds more interest.

When we were finished at the temple, we headed back to Mary’s house to look over all the pictures I had taken. One of the best pieces of advice she gave me was to never delete my “bad” pictures until I had looked at all of them side by side, because it’s those less-than-perfect photos that will show you which ones are the keepers. As I went through my photos, and listened to Mary’s feedback, I could see the difference between pictures, what I had gotten right as well as wrong, and what made one shot better than another.

An OK shot of the fountain, but . . .
An OK shot of the fountain, but . . .

What I learned in my session that day greatly improved the pictures I took on our vacation (until my camera battery died). I was more conscious of what I was doing, and what I was photographing, rather than just snapping away at anything, which is what I tended to do in the past. I got much better vacation photos than I ever have before.

 . . . it becomes a much more interesting picture when the fountain is slightly off center.
. . . it becomes a much more interesting picture when the fountain is slightly off center and the palm trees are included (still needs leveling though).

My photo session with Mary was a great way to not only learn how to take better pictures, but also learn a bit more about our beautiful island, up close and personal. Mary’s an insightful, patient teacher, and she’s happy to share her vast knowledge on how to get better photos no matter where you are or what camera you’re using (because great photos are more about who’s taking the picture rather than what camera they’re using). I’m looking forward to visiting the Hindu temple again with Brett and the girls in the not-too-distant future, and plan to sign YaYu up for one of Mary’s sessions later this year.

Mahalo nui loa, Mary!
Mahalo nui loa, Mary!

If you’re visiting Kaua’i, you can book a photo session with Mary by contacting her via bartnikowski.com!

37 Years


Brett and I watched “Meet The Patels” a few weeks ago, a semi-documentary about 30 year-old Ravi Patel’s search for a bride. The entire movie was great, but our favorite moment was when Ravi’s parents each commented separately, “She/He still believes that after 37 years, she/he can change me.” Brett and I both laughed out loud because that’s us too. We still secretly think we change each other.

Except neither of us really wants the other to change. We love and like each other just the way we are.

I don’t know any secret to why our marriage is still going strong. No one can drive me crazy as quickly as Brett can, and the same for him: I can make him absolutely bonkers in no time flat. We’re very, very different people: I’m an introvert, he’s an extrovert. He likes to save things; I like to throw things away. He likes physical activity, while I prefer to curl up with a book. He’s a horizontal thinker – one thing at a time – while I think vertically, and can balance many things at once (he says I talk in spreadsheets). Although he’s very mechanically inclined, he’s right-brain oriented while I very much favor the left side of my brain, and have no mechanical skills whatsoever. We like different types of movies, books, and so forth.

In other words, opposites did attract in our case. In Chinese astrology, he’s a Tiger, and I’m a Dragon, and are one of the worst astrological matches out there. Or . . . one of the best: the Immovable Object meets the Irresistible Force, who completely balance each other.

We agree on the big things though, like money, childrearing, politics and so forth. And, we mostly agree on the little things too, which is maybe more important. After nearly 40 years together, we can still surprise each other. Even though we have fairly separate interests, we greatly enjoy each other’s company, and can talk with each other about anything. We’ve always been and still are each other’s best friend. We make each other laugh. We not only appreciate the other’s strengths, but we appreciate and understand the other’s weaknesses as well, and are quick to help out or step in if needed.

We have never gone to bed angry with the other. If there’s disagreement, we stay up and work it out. We express our love and affection frequently. Both of us grew up in homes with unhappy marriages, but we thankfully haven’t repeated our parents’ mistakes.

Before I met Brett, my mother advised me not to marry a sailor, that I would always regret it. Brett’s mom stayed convinced that I was nothing more than a gold digger, and only married him for his money (hahahahahahahaha). Thankfully both were wrong because we’ve been very right for each other.

Happy 37th anniversary to us!



This Week’s Menu

These tacos are actually from Bonefish Grill, but look very similar to the ones we make.
These tacos are actually from Bonefish Grill, but look very similar to the ones we make.

We are currently in our “Week of Ham” – I bought a medium-sized spiral-sliced ham for Easter, and now it needs to get eaten! Ham will be appearing at breakfast, lunch and dinner all week. Since I’m not eating meat, the girls and Brett are going to have to step up and take on my usual portion as well, but no one is complaining. They all LOVE ham!

There seems to be a lot of meat on the menu this week and only one vegetarian dinner. I really wasn’t feeling very inspired to come up with more than one vegan dishes for some reason.

Tonight’s dinner, Pasta with Ham, Spinach & Peppers is super easy to prepare, and one of the girls’ and Brett’s most favorite dishes, ever. In a large strainer place one bag of baby spinach, and 2 red bell peppers that have been cored and cut into thin strips. Cook 12 oz. of farfalle (bow tie) pasta until al dente in a large pan of water. When the pasta is done, pour it and the hot water over the spinach and peppers – the heat from the water and pasta will “cook” the vegetables. Place all back into the pasta pot, including 1-2 cups diced ham, and then toss with Alouette sun-dried tomato and basil cheese spread (or something similar). Add salt and pepper to taste . . . and that’s it! I usually serve it with garlic bread and artichokes, if I can get them.

Here’s what we’re eating this week:

  • Tuesday: Pasta with Ham, Spinach and Peppers; garlic bread. I am going to have some pasta with marinara sauce.
  • Wednesday: Anniversary night, so leftovers for the girls while Brett and I go to Merriman’s in Poipu.
  • Thursday: Ham & cheese panini; (vegan) potato salad. I’m going to make myself a vegetable panini of some kind.
  • Friday: Fish tacos; Mexican rice. We picked up a lovely piece of locally caught ono at Costco, and will grill it and shred for the tacos, then top with shredded cabbage and mango salsa.
  • Saturday: Fried rice with ham. The ham will be added after I take my serving.
  • Sunday: Grilled chicken drumsticks; (vegan) stuffing; the vegetable will depend on what we find at the farmers’ market.
  • Monday: Drunken noodles with tofu. This recipe was a big hit the last time I made it.

Here’s hoping it all goes according to plan!

How I Shop For Airfare


There are no road trips when you live out on a tiny island out in the middle of a big ocean. If you want to travel, you’ve got to fly.

I’ve read countless articles over the years on how to find the best airfares, and along with some of the advice I’ve picked up along the way, I’ve also come up with my own technique for finding the best ticket prices to wherever we’re traveling. Over the years I’ve always been able to find airfares for less, sometimes hundreds of dollars less, than what I initially budgeted for a trip.

One of the reasons I like to plan travel so far out, if possible, is that it gives me more time to figure out what’s going on, set up a budget, and save for our trip versus starting closer to when we plan to go and then getting freaked out by the prices I find.

I’m definitely not an expert when it comes to booking airfare, but here’s how I do it:

  • Research, research, research: Once we (or I) decide where we’re going, I start checking airfares, even when the trip is going to be a year away, like our trip to Japan next year. I always start with Kayak because the site lets me know the different airlines that fly to our destination, and by inputting several different dates once or twice a week I can generally get a ballpark estimate for what our tickets are going to cost. Kayak also has an algorithm that can sometimes let you know whether prices are expected to increase or decrease, which is helpful. If the trip falls within less than nine months. I start searching my travel dates immediately.
  • Set a price limit: Based on research, I set a limit for the highest price I am willing to pay per ticket, and use that price when I make my entire travel budget. The research is important to set a realistic limit. It makes no sense to tell myself I only want to spend $400 per ticket when prices are in the $800 ballpark and staying there. So far though I’ve always been able to come in under my limit, sometimes by a couple of hundred dollars. You can set up a price alert with Kayak and other sites that let you know when prices drop below your limit, but I’ve always been able to find great prices without the alerts.
  • Buying early versus buying late: I know there can be great ticket prices at the last minute, but when I’m traveling with the family, waiting until then is too risky. I might not be able to find seats for everyone, or we might end up scattered throughout the plane, not a good idea when you have children or you’re on a long flight. Typically, I am ready to buy tickets nine months before travel, if I can find a good price. Also, the earlier I buy, the better the seat selection.
  • Search everyday: When I enter my “buy window,” I’ll usually start checking in with Kayak every day, and will also start checking airline sites as well – they sometimes have better prices. Southwest Airlines doesn’t show up on Kayak so if I want to use them I have to go directly to their site. Once a day for a check is enough though. I’ve never found a “best time” or “best day” to find good fares. They can appear at any time.
  • Be flexible: It’s not always possible, but I’ve been able to save big a few times by being flexible about travel dates. When we moved to Kaua’i in 2014, because we had a lot of luggage we wanted to fly non-stop to Lihue from Seattle, and we planned to leave on the Saturday after the girls’ last day of school. But, one evening when I was checking fares for that particular flight, I saw that if we left on Thursday instead of Saturday we could save over $680 on our family’s tickets. The girls had to finish school two days early, and we had to pay $270 for two nights in a hotel since we couldn’t move into our pre-paid condo rental early, but it was still a $410 savings for being willing and able to leave two days early.
  • Time is money: Sometimes the cheapest fares are not the best. There is no way I want to spend 20 hours or more traveling to my destination, with two stops along the way and a seven-hour layover in some airport just for a cheap fare. I don’t want to spend hours waiting in some airport between flights. I also hate redeye flights with a vengeance because I don’t sleep well on planes (I am dreading WenYu and my trip to Colorado in two weeks – we are booked the redeye from Lihue into Seattle). I always check the total travel time before I book any ticket, find out where the layovers are and how long they will be, and whether our flight will arrive the same day as we depart, because I am more than willing to pay a little more (but still below my limit) for a shorter travel time.
  • Be ready to pounce: When I find a good or great price for tickets, with a good flight schedule, I buy them then and there. No hesitation, no regrets. I did feel a little unsure last year about buying our Mystery Vacation™ tickets to Phoenix so early, because they were just a few dollars under my limit, but the price never went any lower than what I paid. I had no way of knowing that at the time except I had been watching the price trends and had a feeling prices were not going to get any better . . . and they didn’t.
  • Brand loyalty: Although I’ll consider almost all airlines, we currently prefer to fly with Hawaiian Airlines if at all possible because we earn frequent flyer miles to cover the girls’ travel to and from college. However, if I find a great flight at a great price on another airline, I’ll go with that.
  • One more thing: If I have a long flight, and can upgrade to Extra Comfort or Preferred Economy or whatever the airline calls it, I will pay for it – I always add a little to our travel budget to cover this expense. Sometimes you can book the preferred seating when you purchase tickets, but with some airlines the upgrade can only be done when you check in for the flight. Prices for an upgrade range from $50 to $100 per ticket, but that five extra inches of leg room makes a real difference, especially on a six- or eight-hour (or longer) flight.

Believe it or not, I find researching, and then searching for a good ticket price a lot of fun. I love the thrill of the hunt, of finding a great price for the shortest travel time on my preferred airline if possible. I’m getting ready in the next week or so to start researching flights to Tokyo, but June will be around the earliest I will consider purchasing. I can be patient though if I need to be. I’ve had good luck in the past finding great prices for Japan flights, and with the drop in fuel prices this past year I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I’ll come up lucky again. I’m also going to have to start looking for tickets for WenYu and I back to the mainland when it’s time for her to go to school, but can’t start searching for those until we know for sure which college she chooses. And, I’m still hoping the fares for our June trip to Oahu will drop a little, but they’ve been holding steady for the past several months and I may, for the first time, have to purchase above my limit (and then cut our travel budget elsewhere).

Sunday Afternoon 3/27/2016

Wellesley College
Wellesley College

A very Happy Easter to those who celebrate the holiday!

The girls and I made cake pops yesterday (strawberry with dark chocolate coating), but this is the first year we haven’t bought candy and/or treats for the girls. Brett and I plan to head to Walmart tomorrow though to pick up some discounted candy as well as a few other Hawai’i treats to make a care package for Meiling.

WenYu was accepted at Wellesley College!! She got the news last Wednesday evening, when she checked her email right after we checked in at our hotel in Phoenix. Wellesley was her “reach” school, the one she thought she’d never have a chance to attend. And the financial aid! If we thought the offer from Colorado College was excellent, Wellesley’s offer was even better. WenYu and I are going to visit CC in a couple of weeks because she is actually still undecided between the two schools – both have their advantages – but I feel like she is already leaning more to Wellesley (which has also offered her airfare to visit their campus, but the visit unfortunately overlaps with the CC visit). Anyway, we are all over the moon for her, and her Wellesley acceptance softened the rejections she received from Scripps and Oberlin. (Besides Colorado College, we thought she would be accepted at Oberlin, rejected by Wellesley, and Scripps could go either way. Totally got that wrong!!)

Decisions, decisions: Wellesley? Or Colorado College?
Decisions, decisions: Wellesley? Or Colorado College?

Our other piece of good news concerned my Social Security. After taking so long to get it started, it turned out the initial estimates for my benefit were wrong – I will be receiving $53 more per month than I expected! The girls’ dependent benefit also jumped quite a bit. So, while we were comfortable before, we’re going to be a tiny bit more comfortable income-wise (although WenYu’s benefit ends in June).

Otherwise, we’re back to our regular routines for the most part. The suitcases have been unpacked, laundry is being done, I’m back on the exercise bicycle, and I’m on duty in the kitchen again. The weather is beach perfect today so Brett and I are planning to head down there shortly to soak up some sunshine.

This afternoon I am:

  • Reading: I started Over the Edge, about deaths in the Grand Canyon, and so far it’s a good read. If the first chapter is any indication, the woman there who mentioned stupid was right – most of the accidental falls off the edge were easily preventable. But, people insist on climbing over guide rails “to get a closer look” or do other dangerous and stupid things it seems, especially males between the ages of 22 – 39.
  • Listening to: The washing machine running once again, finishing up the last of our vacation clothes. It’s otherwise a beautiful, quiet Easter morning here, with birds singing and soft breezes blowing. The girls are quiet, getting the last of their schoolwork done before heading back on Tuesday (tomorrow is a state holiday).
  • Watching: Brett and I are looking forward to starting the second season of Happy Valley on Netflix tonight. We all watched Mona Lisa Smile last night (starring Julia Roberts), which was set at Wellesley College in the early 50s.
  • Cooking/baking: Brett made french toast topped with strawberries and whipped cream for Easter breakfast (I had cereal with soy milk and strawberries). We picked up a ham at Costco on Friday, so Brett and the girls will have that with some macaroni and cheese and steamed green beans for dinner this evening. I’m not sure what I’m going to have, but most likely some of the delicious leftover yakisoba that YaYu fixed for last night’s dinner.
  • Happy I accomplished this past week: Besides coming in under budget for the Mystery Vacation™, both Brett and I are relieved the big monthly Costco shop is over. The refrigerator and pantry were practically empty when we left for Arizona, so it was a BIG shop. Not accomplished this week but the week before, we got our hotel reservation at the New Sanno in Japan! We feel very lucky to have gotten a room – the level we wanted was already sold out when we called, but we got another room level that will work for the three of us. Brett, YaYu and I are going to Japan next year!

    My beautiful Navajo bracelet!
    My beautiful Navajo bracelet!
  • Thinking of good things that happened: Besides WenYu’s Wellesley acceptance, the good news from Social Security, and getting a reservation at the New Sanno, we also brought back $10.81 in change and $1 bills from our vacation (and spent less overall than expected); that will go into the fund for future vacations. I lost a couple of pounds during the vacation in spite of feeling like I ate way too much. And, Brett bought me a gorgeous, artist-signed Navajo silver bracelet in Sedona. I had admired it in a store we visited, and he bought it for me as a surprise anniversary present!
  • Looking forward to next week: Brett and I are going out for happy hour on Wednesday evening to celebrate our 37th anniversary. We’re heading to Merriman’s in Poipu on the south shore, to catch the sunset while we enjoy some delicious appetizers and drinks.
  • Grateful for: Brett, WenYu and I are all feeling very, very grateful for and amazed by the extremely generous financial aid offer from Wellesley College. With the scholarships she has received and her brother covering textbooks, there would be no out-of-pocket expenses for her to attend other than transportation to and from Boston (one of the cities Hawaiian Airlines flies to – yeah!). WenYu still hasn’t made a final decision on which college she will choose, but the aid award is definitely tilting her toward Wellesley.
  • Bonus Question: What’s your least favorite part about traveling? Other than enduring long plane flights, I seem to always end up unhappy with the beds and pillows in whatever hotel I stay in, and never get a good night’s sleep. I have to say though that the beds in all three hotels we stayed in on this vacation were incredibly comfortable as were the pillows. All three beds were pillow topped, and each hotel offered a selection of pillows from soft to firm. I drifted right off to sleep each night without a problem and woke up feeling terrific. Brett and I now want to get a memory foam topper for our bed.

How are you spending this Sunday? Are you celebrating Easter? How did your week go?

Mystery Vacation Debrief

Grand Canyon view from the front of the El Tovar hotel
Grand Canyon view from the front of the El Tovar hotel

We’re home again! We arrived on our beautiful island safe and sound but exhausted yesterday afternoon, and closed the books on a wonderful family vacation. It will take a couple of days to finish unpacking and such, but it’s good to be home.

Hopi House, designed my architect Mary Coulter.
Hopi House, designed by architect Mary Coulter.

Only two things happened to mar an otherwise perfect time. WenYu got sick the day after we arrived at the Grand Canyon, and after initially thinking her malaise was due to the altitude (the South Rim of the canyon is 7000 ft. above sea level) and dehydration, it turned out to be a mild case of food poisoning. We have no idea where it came from since she and I shared dishes Thursday evening and Friday morning and I didn’t get sick, so our best guess is that it was caused by one of the pieces of fruit she ate at breakfast Friday morning. Whatever it came from, she was very sick on Friday evening and was not feeling herself again for a few days.

WenYu (feeling better) and YaYu on a Rim Trail hike
WenYu (feeling better) and YaYu on a Rim Trail hike at the Canyon

One other small thing was more of an annoyance: We heard from one of our waiters at the El Tovar that if we had time we should check out the meteor crater just east of Flagstaff on our way to Sedona. We checked in with the concierge to get any information he could share and get directions. I had visited the crater when I was young (and it is impressive), and since we had some time we decided to drive out to see it only to find out that the site is privately owned, and the admission to enter would be $59 for our family. No way were we going to pay that to look at a big hole in the ground! We were annoyed that the concierge did not think to inform us of the charge to see it before sending us all the way out there, when that’s part of his job!

Sunset approaches

Otherwise the trip went perfectly:

  • Flights: I never saw a lower price for flights in and out of Phoenix than what I paid, so was very happy I bought them when I did. All our flights left and arrived on time, and Hawaiian Airlines is the only U.S. based airline that still provides complementary food service!
  • Rental car: We got a terrific rate through Costco and had a brand new Mitsubishi Outlander for the week for just $362. It was very roomy and comfortable, got great mileage and Brett said it was fun to drive.

    Looking back at the El Tovar from Bright Angel.
    Looking back at the El Tovar from Bright Angel.
  • Hotels: We stayed at the Comfort Suites Phoenix Airport the night of our arrival on the mainland and the night before our departure. Nothing fancy, but the hotel was clean, comfortable and convenient, and they had a nice free breakfast. The El Tovar Hotel at the Grand Canyon was worth every penny we spent for the service, comfort and location, location, location. In Sedona we stayed at the Best Western Plus hotel on the west side of town. We got a terrific rate through Travelocity (better than the Phoenix hotel!), and our room was lovely. The views from the hotel patios were nothing short of breathtaking. This hotel also offered a great free breakfast, and we were in walking distance of restaurants and a Whole Foods market. I would stay at all three hotels again (Note: If you want to stay at the Grand Canyon be prepared to book a full year in advance to get a room at any of the in-park lodgings). One surprise for me was seeing that the little rustic cabins at Bright Angel Lodge are still being used – my family stayed in one 52 years ago when we visited the Grand Canyon, and they were “rustic” then!

    A happy YaYu and her happy mule, Willow, at the end of our ride
    YaYu and her mule, Willow, both had a great ride
  • Activities: Two activities were ones I pre-booked for the trip: a 2-hour mule ride along the Grand Canyon rim, and the Pink Jeep Broken Arrow tour in Sedona. Both activities were a BIG hit with all of us – they were fun, but educational and gave us views of the area we wouldn’t have seen otherwise. The guides for both really knew their stuff too. The mule ride is another thing that has to be booked early (like almost a year in advance) as spaces fill up fast. It was sad seeing so many people lined up at the desk each day asking if there were any cancellations (which rarely happen). I also booked our Pink Jeep tour several months in advance. They had five jeeps go out for just the 5:00 tour the day we went (tours go out every half hour), and the woman we spoke to when we checked in said they had been turning people away all day. We also enjoyed a Native American dance, music and storytelling performance held outside the Hopi House last Sunday afternoon – the music and dances were beautiful, and the hoop dance was nothing short of incredible. The dances are done by local Native American college students as a way to help pay for their education (there is no charge to watch, but most everyone leaves a small monetary gift), and we were there for their first performances of the year.

    Native American dancer
    Native American dancer
  • Meals: We discovered our first evening at the Grand Canyon that portion sizes for meals were HUGE. We’d eat a big breakfast every morning, and then not need to eat again until dinner, except for maybe a small snack in the afternoon. Even when we split a meal we left the restaurants feeling very full. The food was good and well-prepared, so how WenYu got sick remains a mystery. Our favorite breakfast spot was the El Tovar dining room – very classy – and although we tried both the Bright Angel Lodge and the Arizona Room for dinner, the Maswik Lodge food court and pizza pub turned out to be our favorite – they had a big selection of good food at lower prices than the restaurants, and we had a nice hike over and back from the El Tovar. In Sedona we had delicious Chinese food the first night – we walked to the restaurant, Szechuan, from our hotel – and the second day we ate twice at the Wildflower Cafe in town. They had very reasonably priced sandwiches and soup for lunch, and we had pasta dishes for dinner. Before heading out of town on Wednesday, we had breakfast at the famous Coffee Pot Restaurant (“101 Omelettes”) – delicious! I think the most we ever spent in one day for food was $110 for the four of us. By the way, it was somewhat difficult to stick to vegan eating on the trip, although I tried. It seemed someone was always garnishing my dishes with sour cream or some other dairy product even though it was not listed on the menu. I did eat eggs for breakfast a couple of times, and also had some smoked salmon, but otherwise was able to find vegan dishes.

    The Watchtower at Desert View, also designed by Mary Coulter
    The Watchtower at Desert View, also designed by Mary Coulter
  • Souvenirs/Miscellaneous Expenses: I budgeted $200/day for food, souvenirs, and other expenses and we came in under budget every day. Brett bought himself a couple of t-shirts and a ball cap; I bought some silver & turquoise earrings and a book, Over the Edge, about all the known deaths that have occurred in the Grand Canyon (or, as one woman told me, all the stupid things people have done over the years). We heard rave reviews about the book everywhere we went, so I finally broke down and bought it. Brett and I also bought a Native American-made ornament for our Christmas tree, and we bought Meiling a necklace and pair of earrings. Miscellaneous expenses included gas for the car, a gift for the dancers, and admission to Slide Rock State Park outside of Sedona. The girls had their own money to spend, and bought lovely (and useful) items.
Colorado River view from the Watchtower
Colorado River view from the Watchtower

It truly was a wonderful vacation. I loved being able to get together with my childhood friend in Williams, before we headed to the Grand Canyon, and having dinner with friends Lori and Todd in Phoenix the evening before we departed. I loved the time I got to spend with Brett and the girls. We even got to stop at a Trader Joe’s in Phoenix for a few things! We also received a couple of pieces of good news while we were away, which I will be sharing with you shortly.

Rock crawling in Sedona
Rock crawling in Sedona
Slide Rock State Park - the water was cold, but a few brave souls were giving the slide a go.
Slide Rock State Park just outside Sedona – the water was cold, but a few brave souls were still giving the slide a try.

The family said they are up for another mystery vacation as long as I don’t wait quite so long to reveal the destination. I’m thinking Christmas 2017, but I’ve got to unpack from this one first!

Sunrise on our last morning at the canyon
Sunrise on our last morning at the canyon

Falling For Sedona


Well, you all know I love Kaua’i, but Sedona has been actively flirting with me from the moment we arrived and I think I am starting to fall for its charms. I wish we could have another day or two here, but we have to check out of our hotel this morning and head back into Phoenix in the evening for our early Thursday morning return to Hawai’i. We’ll be meeting loyal blog reader Lori and her husband Todd for dinner when we get into town (we first met them back in 2014 on our Kaua’i house-hunting trip) before checking into our airport hotel.


The scenery here in Sedona has been nothing short of gorgeous. Like drop dead gorgeous. I’ve never been all that fond of desert landscapes, but I could definitely see myself waking up here every day to the spectacular red rock landscapes that surround the town. Every one of us enjoyed the Pink Jeep tour yesterday afternoon, for the opportunity to see more of the surrounding area up close and personal (and having a blast while doing it – the tour was well worth it, in all our opinions).


I’ve been feeling particularly energetic since we arrived in Sedona, and I learned yesterday that it might be because of the vortex that’s said to exist here, with natural energy emitted from under the earth. Or, it could be that I am just inspired by the natural beauty that surrounds the town.

The Grand Canyon was awe-inspiring in its grandeur, but Sedona has been awesome in its more intimate natural beauty. I’m so glad I added a stop here to our itinerary.

It’s been a wonderful vacation for all of us.

The Grandest Canyon

The Grand Canyon certainly lives up to its hype. It is the grandest canyon. Ever. However, the WiFi connection has been less than sporadic since we arrived, and I can’t get pictures to load. Oh well, I’ll treat you to a slide show when I get back home!

We’ve all been having a very good time for the most part, and the weather has been superb. However, we were not well-prepared for the effects of both elevation and dehydration, but I think we have finally gotten that under control. We had a very sick girl last night, but with rest and enough water WenYu is feeling like her old self again. I’ve been a little light-headed at times even though I’ve been drinking water like mad, but Brett and YaYu seem to have not suffered at all.

We took our mule ride trip today and thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it, especially the incredible views of the canyon along the rim. I did not have my camera with me, however. My rechargeable battery started dying yesterday and of course it turned out that the one thing I forgot to pack is the docking station for recharging (I know right where it’s sitting at home too). Phones were not allowed on the mule ride – they tend to bounce out of pockets – so I’ll just have to wait and steal some pictures from the girls after we get home.

The El Tovar has been wonderful, and everything we hoped it would be. We were given a lovely, spacious, comfortable room with partial canyon views so it’s been a great place to rest, recharge and sleep. The food at every restaurant has been fabulous as well, although portion sizes are huge (for us, anyway). We’ve been having to split full meals or order off the appetizer menus so we don’t waste any food!

We’ve got one more day at the Canyon tomorrow – we’re thinking of driving out to the Watchtower at Desert View – and then it’s on to Sedona! I’ll try to check in again when we’re there.

#Kauai: Helicopter Tour

Absolutely the best thing I’ve done on Kauai!

I’ve lived on this magical island for 2 years. But this opened my eyes all the way to my toes.

Soaring over the plunging velvety emerald cliffs and mesmerizing turquoise waters was a jolt to my soul.

How could all this amazing enchantment be sparkling in the now moment and I’ve never seen it?

I fell more deeply in love with this 25 x 33 miles tiny island. But no, it’s not so tiny. The power of the landscape made me tingle for hours, it was like having a crush on a hunky man turn into true love.

I was floating. My eyes grew new nerve endings, I could see more clearly and my heart busted open in gratitude.

Wonder and awe guide my life now. And I’ve never been more grateful that I sold my belongings, explored the world, moved to an island, and decided to be happy.

You can change your life. It all starts with that whispering in your spirit that says, yes go that way or no that is not for you.

Listen to it, even if it doesn’t make sense. Logic is not final wisdom.

Would your friends and family tell you not to move to another country or convert a used shipping container into a home? I am considering this.

Don’t live anyone’s life but your own.

It’s enough to do that one thing in your life. Truly live what is in your heart.

Yes courage takes practice. But there’s no other time like right now to start practicing.

Kickstart your motivation here, in my new video on the beach in Poipu.

Mary Bartnikowski, is an author, award winning photographer, and speaker. She has led programs at Apple Computer, Stanford, Intel, and worldwide.

Stay in touch with Mary and get her free ebook, Secrets of Stunning Photographs.

Go with www.sunshinehelicopters.com

Mystery Revealed!

We leave early tomorrow on our long-awaited and much-anticipated Mystery Vacation™!

Without further ado, we are headed to . . .


. . . the Grand Canyon and beautiful Sedona, Arizona!

Brett has talked about going for as long as I’ve known him, and the girls are also very, very excited about visiting this awe-inspiring natural wonder. I haven’t been to the Grand Canyon in almost 50 years, but every visit I’ve made in the past was nothing short of amazing, so I’m very excited as well about returning and experiencing it all again.

Guide leading mule riders up a steep portion of the Bright Angel Trail known as Heartbreak Hill. The Battleship formation is in the background, and Cheops Pyramid beyond that. (on the other side of the Colorado River) NPS photo by Michael Quinn. Mule trips into the canyon - as well as rides through the park's woodlands to scenic canyon overlooks - are offered on both the the North and South Rims of the park. Learn more here: http://www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/mule_trips.htm

We’ll be flying in to Phoenix, arriving fairly late in the evening so will stay overnight near the airport after we pick up our rental car. Next morning, after our free breakfast at the hotel, we’ll hit the road and drive up to Williams, where we’ll meet for lunch and a reunion with a high school friend of mine and her husband. Both worked at the Grand Canyon for many years following their early retirement from the business world. They are bringing maps, etc. and will help us figure out what to see and do while we’re there.


While we’re at the Grand Canyon we’ll be staying at the historic and elegant El Tovar Hotel. The El Tovar, which opened in 1905, sits right on the rim, and is centrally located to most everything in the Grand Canyon Village. Reservations for the El Tovar sell out in just a few hours; I had to get up very early here to make ours a year ago! The only scheduled activity we have so far is a mule ride along the rim (which was also reserved early because it sells out quickly), but we are thinking about renting bikes one day for some touring. Or, we may drive up to Page and tour the slot canyons in Antelope Valley. We’ll just wait and see what we feel like doing. The wild card will of course be weather. It’s forecast to be mostly sunny but cold while we’re there (below freezing at night). There were rumors of snow one day, but that doesn’t seem to be happening any more, thank goodness.


After our time at the Grand Canyon we’ll drive over to beautiful Sedona to take in and explore the incredible vistas and red rock formations. We have reservations at sunset one day for a Pink Jeep Broken Arrow tour, where we’ll get up close and personal to the rocks and do some rock crawling. It’s supposed to be very, very fun (and thrilling) – can’t wait!


Then we’ll head back to Phoenix to spend the night – our flight home to Hawai’i leaves early in the morning.

Ever since they learned our destination last week, the girls and Brett have been eagerly researching all they can about the Grand Canyon and what we can see and do there. We’re all excited about the restaurants and food choices there and in Sedona – Navajo tacos, anyone? I’m just happy that it all came together, that everyone is happy with our destination, and that after more than a year of planning we’ll finally be on our way!

I’ll try to check in while we’re gone, but the WiFi at the Canyon is not supposed to be very good, so there might not be anything until we get to Sedona. But, I’ll be back with a full report next week! Arizona, here we come!