A First-Timer’s Escorted Tour Experience in Paradise
By: Andromeda Mendoza
Affordabletours.com Senior Designer
Recently I decided to fulfill one of my travel goals which was to actually take a vacation. A real vacation—not one of those where, you’re so exhausted, you need a vacation from your travels. No. I wanted a real getaway trip, but a trip that included tons of sightseeing excursions as well as included meals, plus a guide that would take care of all of the nuances and details along the way. That’s when I decided to go for an At Leisure escorted tour to Hawaii. Since this was to be my first ever escorted tour, I decided to try a more upscale itinerary which led me to find Hawaiian Dreams, an Insight Gold Tour.
This was still a fairly new product launched by Insight Vacations, so I was a bit hesitant as to how good it might be. On a positive note however, we at AffordableTours.com have heard some wonderful reviews about the tour from clients that have already taken it. In addition, since it was a Gold package, I was sure to get the best hotels for my trip.
Before I get into any of the details of my trip, I just have to say that this was by far one of the greatest vacations I’ve ever taken. I had been to Hawaii once before, but only to Honolulu, so I was never able to go island hopping. This tour visits 3-4 of the Hawaiian islands for 10 – 12 days. My traveling companion and I chose to do the 10-day tour which covered Oahu, Maui, and Hawaii (otherwise referred to as The Big Island).
Honolulu on the Island of Oahu
In Honolulu, we stayed at the Moana Surfrider which is situated on the Waikiki strip, basically at the heart of all of the major shopping and tourist spots. Waikiki has such a vibrant atmosphere and everyone is up and about until the wee hours of the morning. Our hotel was incredibly lovely, with a historical facade of white, high columns and a wide porch complete with rocking chairs stretching across the entire frame of the front entrance. We later learned that the Moana Surfrider, also known as First Lady of Waikīkī, was the first hotel put up on Waikiki and was built in the late 19th century. They even have artifacts and historical memorabilia on the upper floors of the hotel for tourists and history buffs to enjoy. In the courtyard sits a massive Banyan Tree that you absolutely have to take pictures under! And a few steps away is the sparkling, grand Pacific ocean just waiting for you to dip your toes in. Just a tip: the buffet breakfast at the Moana is absolutely first class! You can also enjoy your breakfasts along their restaurant porch overlooking the beach to watch the sunrise!
On the evening of the welcome reception, my traveling companion and I met with others on the tour and got to know our tour director over glasses of wine and authentic Hawaiian appetizers known as “Pupus” (it’s fun to say really!). After the reception, we walked out onto the beach in the twilight, under the stars and the moon next to the glowing lights from our hotel, listening to the lulling Hawaiian music, and watching the sea. It felt like a perfect scene, like out of the movies.
The next morning, we met with our tour group again and our tour director sat with each one of us to arrange our optional excursions for the next 2 days on Oahu. Aside from optional excursions (which cost extra) there are a number of included sightseeing on this tour like a visit to Pearl Harbor at the USS Arizona Memorial, the Punchbowl Cemetery, and a tour of the Iolani Palace. We took an optional excursion called East Oahu Circle Island Tour that goes all over a portion of Oahu showing the best beaches and lookouts: circling Diamond Head, stopping at Halona “Blowhole” Lookout, “From Here to Eternity” Beach, a visit to Hanauma Bay, and more! You get tons of great photo ops at each of the stops and your local guide gives you great tips on where to go for the best swimming, surfing, snorkeling, and sightseeing experiences.
Our tour director, Julie, was such a pleasant and accommodating guide throughout our entire trip. She made sure to let everyone know that this was our vacation and if we did not want to participate in any of the included sightseeing we did not have to—some of us did opt out of the included sightseeing in favor of lazing around at our resort. And my travel companion and I (being that we were younger travelers in our tour group) decided to try more adventurous excursions. So, we set out to go parasailing, which was such exhilarating fun!
Traveling to Maui, I quickly fell in love with the island and its glorious greenery and lush waterfalls. Not to mention it’s long stretches of golden colored sand and sparkling clear water. Since I was a first-timer on Maui, everything was a new and breathtaking experience! We got to visit a black sand beach with a lava tube cave, we went snorkeling at the beach right off of our resort with a view of 2 islands in the horizon, and we also visited (and swam in) the famed Ohe’o Gulch, or 7 Pools, in Haleakala National Park while visiting Hana. We heard that the Ohea’o Gulch is sometimes closed off to swimming due to either excessive water flow from rain or stagnant water, but to our delight, luck was on our side that day.
Black Sand Beach
Views of Ohe’o Gulch in Haleakala National Park
Our local tour guides were incredibly friendly and knowledgeable during our all day sightseeing adventures. They always spoke about the landscape of the Hawaiian islands, the vegetation and rainfall, the history and culture and also about celebrities that have made Hawaii their home away from home. Did you know that Oprah Winfrey owns estates on Maui as well as a private road? And of course, what would a visit to the islands be without attending one of the most spectacular traditions in Hawaiian culture? You guessed it—a Luau! On our last night in Maui, we attended an authentic Polynesian Luau complete with hula dancers, fire twirlers and an authentic spread of traditional Hawaiian cuisine with unlimited Mai Tai (if you can handle it!). The food was, as you guessed, fantastic! If you get the chance to visit Maui, I urge you to try their Kalua Pork. Especially at Kimo’s in Lahaina (Visit Kimo’s website). Lahaina is Maui’s own boardwalk strip with tons of restaurants, souvenir shops, and art galleries. I was sad to leave Maui, but I was excited to be visiting another Hawaiian island to see what it has to offer.
The Big Island of Hawaii
Hawaii (nicknamed “the Big Island” to differentiate it from the Hawaii islands as a whole) is truly a wonder to behold. One side of the island is green, lush and very fertile, while the other side is completely barren and desert-like. The leeward side of the island, the western side, hardly gets any rainfall all year! Also, as you travel through the island, you will see black volcanic rock covering the landscape and along the coastline. It’s such a unique sight, that it makes one feel like they are in another world, or perhaps on the moon. You can also see black volcanic rock along the highways decorated with white seashells and coral by natives and tourists alike who want to leave their messages behind. The Hawaiians refer to it as their version of eco-friendly graffiti. Hawaii is also the largest of all of islands, it’s the youngest and the least in population count. It’s landmass is ever-changing because of the volcanic activity that occurs and it’s home to the world’s most active volcano, Mt. Kilauea and the world’s largest, Mt. Mauna Loa which we actually got to see when visiting Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
On a full day of sightseeing we were able to walk through a tropical rainforest which housed the Thurston Lava Tube, a massive 500-year old lava cave. We also got to look down into the Kilauea Caldera and see the steam rising up from it. You can take an optional excursion helicopter ride for a better view of the volcanic activity around the island if you’re brave enough!
Also included in Insight’s Gold Package are all day sightseeing trips through coffee and macadamia nut orchards and a cacao farm, and a trip to Pu`uhonua O Hōnaunau (place of refuge) National Historical Park. We also got to visit a wine tasting ranch where we sampled pineapple wine and pineapple infused confections. Plus, we visited The Big Island Candies Factory where we were surrounded by all types of chocolate covered macadamia nut candies and cookies to sample. You can watch the ladies at work behind a glass wall hand-dipping the chocolates to perfection. Don’t forget to purchase some sweet treats to take back home to your loved ones! There’s only 2 places on the entire Hawaiian Islands where they sell Big Island Candies (and this is one of them).
Our hotel on Hawaii, The Fairmont Orchid, was perfect for this getaway since I wanted to be able to enjoy various watersports like snorkeling, stand-up paddle, and kayaking. This hotel has all of that right off of their beautiful beach cove outlined with black lava rock. Insight’s package gives you a Fun Pass which takes care of all of your watersports goodies and towels for your entire stay at the resort. The experience was extremely relaxing and just breathtaking. I was most ecstatic when I went off to go snorkeling and a sea turtle actually swam up beside me!
On our last evening on The Big Island, for our farewell dinner, we enjoyed a full course dinner menu (a Tasting Menu) which was a real treat provided by The Brown’s Beach House right there at our resort. This fine dining experience is outside overlooking the lovely beach and cove, readily awaiting guests to pair their dinner course with a gorgeous sunset. Tasting Menus are just fabulous—very classy. If you’re not familiar with it, a Tasting Menu consists of smaller portioned dishes personally “designed” by the Chef with his signature touch. (But make no mistake, the portions were wholly filling!)
It was a bittersweet time, saying goodbye to our newly formed acquaintances and our amazing tour director. Plus, on that very same evening we got to witness a lantern lighting ceremony that our hotel played host to. This was the 2nd Annual Floating Lantern Ceremony that benefited the North Hawaiian Hospice. People can purchase a lantern, decorate it and release it into the ocean to honor a loved one that had passed on.
Watching the ceremony during our farewell dinner was such a moving and spiritual experience. The ceremony was complete with traditional Hawaiian music, hula dancing, and Taiko drummers, followed by the release of the lanterns at sunset. It was such a heart-warming experience and I am grateful to have been there at the time such a ceremony took place. Read More About The Ceremony
And there you have it—a recount of one of the best vacations of my life. I fully recommend this tour for those who want to escape to paradise! It truly is a Hawaiian Dream…but you can make yours a reality—like I did!
Photos © Andromeda Mendoza
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