The Kona Cloud Forest Sanctuary : One of Few Rare Remaining Tropical Cloud Forests in the World

What started 50 years ago on a plot of cattle-stripped land has grown into the only tropical cloud forest in the United States with over 100 species of bamboo, gigantic tree ferns, and many rare and endangered species affording visitors an opportunity to learn firsthand about the value of conservation

As I drive up the windy road, high above the white-sand beaches and black lava fields of the Kona coastline into an area covered by ‘Ōhi‘a trees and lush rainforest, I am struck by how ecologically diverse the island of Hawai’i truly is. As the largest inhabited island of the Hawaiian archipelago, the island of Hawai’i has almost every subclimate zone on the planet altogether in one relatively small place.

At the entrance of the 70-acre Kona Cloud Forest Sanctuary, a white-haired, eighty-ish-looking man is greeting visitors. Wearing a sweatshirt that reads “May the forest be with you” Norman Bezona’s smile spreads ear to ear, crinkling the deep creases along the corners of his eyes. He can hardly wait to tell us the story behind this unique forest. It is one of 736 known tropical cloud forests in the world and the only one in the United States except for the El Yunque National Forest located in the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico.

Kona Cloud Forest Sanctuary

The entrance to the Kona Cloud Forest Sanctuary.Tours available by appointment only. 

Our small group of ten visitors follows Norman inside the entrance, stepping into a magical oasis of peace and tranquility. Statues reminiscent of Bali line the property. Norman informs us that Bali is one of his favorite places on earth, except for of course the island of Hawai’i. We sit on a wooden balcony overlooking the vast depths of the forest while Norman pulls up a chair, readying himself to start our first lesson.

“Does anyone know the difference between a tropical rainforest and a tropical cloud forest?” Norman asks the group.

One blond-haired, pig-tailed girl eagerly raises her hand and replies: “It rains a lot in a rainforest while a cloud forest feels like being in the middle of the clouds“.

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Polulu Valley

The Top Ten Unforgettable Family Experiences on the island of Hawai’i

From hiking along the ancient lava flows at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park to night snorkeling with manta rays and stargazing at Mauna Kea, the island of Hawai’i is filled with endless adventure for the entire family. Here is my curated list of the top ten unforgettable Family Experiences on the island of Hawai’i

The island of Hawai’i – the largest inhabited island of the Hawaiian archipelago – has it all. Nowhere else on earth can you find so much ecological diversity jam-packed into one place. Pristine rain forests, lava deserts, world-class beaches, snow-covered peaks, an active volcano, stunning sunsets, and just about every adventure you can imagine.

Given the island of Hawai’i’s unique geography (there are all but four of the world’s subclimate zones on the island of Hawai’i), there is much more to do than simply lay on the beach. Here are my top ten ideas for the best way to explore this amazing place, ideas that the entire family will enjoy.  I have also included information on how to visit Hawai’i sustainably while respecting the native culture, history, and land.

Author’s note: All these opinions are based on my own experiences and perspectives. The article is about how I personally experienced Hawai’i through my eyes as an American woman and tourist visiting the island of Hawai’i. 

Photo courtesy of Hawaii Tourist Authority

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Piazza del Mercato Lucca Italy

Lucca Like a Local: Interview with Tour Guide Paola Moschini

One of the best day trips from Florence is to the lovely town of Lucca. Known as a Città d’Arte (city of art), Lucca is one of the most beloved towns in all of Tuscany for its beauty, charm, historical treasures, and extraordinarily well-preserved city walls.

For such a small city, Lucca is jam-packed with attractions and has a tremendous amount to see in a day. That is why it is best to see Lucca like a local- that is through the eyes of an experienced, knowledgeable tour guide. Thanks to Debra Kolkka of Bagni di Lucca and Beyond, I learned of Lucca-based Tour Guide, Paola Moschini who ended up being the highlight of our visit.

Always laughing and smiling while she purveys some of the most magical stories and legends of the past, Paola seems to know everything about Lucca. I enjoyed my tour with Paola so much that I invited her to do an interview about what makes Lucca so special. Here is what she had to say.

Lucca, Italy

Lucca is known for its many towers which provide stunning views of the city and beyond.

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A Day Trip From Florence Exploring all Five Villages in Cinque Terre

Perched high atop the steep, rocky coastline of the Ligurian Sea lie the Cinque Terre, five breathtaking colorful Italian fishing villages dating back to the 11th Century. Established as a national park and UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999, the Cinque Terre National Park may be the smallest park in Italy but is perhaps the most unique. For centuries, its inhabitants have used its dramatic landscape to survive by working with it to create a unique system of terrace-based agriculture among its steep slopes which tumble to the sea. Cinque Terre can be visited in a variety of ways: via train, boat, and best of all, on foot exploring its network of footpaths linking the cliff-hanging villages together all while affording dazzling views of the sea. It is an unforgettable experience that can be done as a long but worth it day trip from Florence, Pisa, or other towns in Tuscany.

Corniglia, Cinque Terre, Italy

A Day Trip Exploring Cinque Terre from Florence: Getting there

Since cars are not allowed inside the heart of Cinque Terre, getting there is half the fun. You need to either take the train, drive, or a bus to the town of La Spezia (about 2 hours), where you can catch a ten-minute train ride to the entrance to the park. From there, you can either continue via train or else on foot along the 120 kilometers of trails meandering along the coast.

Most people begin their visit in Riomaggiore, the southernmost town which is the first stop from La Spezia via train. We chose not to start our day here as we had hoped to take the ferry back to Riomaggiore at the end of the day and finish there. Instead, we continued on to the next town, Manarola, which is less than 2 minutes away via train (you can see the stop from the first town!).

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Crater Lake National Park Garfield Peak

Best Day Hikes in Crater Lake National Park

Want to explore Crater Lake on foot and discover the top two hikes that cannot be missed? Look no further, I’ve got it covered. Check out my recommendations on the best day hikes in Crater Lake National Park and a few other stops along the way. You won’t be disappointed!.

We rose to a dusting of snow sprinkled around our tiny wood cabin at the Union Creek Resort. I opened the curtains to discover a glorious fall morning before us. After a quick breakfast, we packed up the car and headed east for our forty-minute drive to Crater National Park. There are not many places to stay inside or near the park especially during the off-season when the campgrounds and some seasonal lodging are closed. It was mid-October, a perfect time of the year to spend a fantastic day hiking the trails at Crater Lake National Park.

As we drove east along Highway 62, the forest trees glistened with morning light, and the drying pavement created a magical mist floating up into the air. Beams of sunshine trickled through the thick old-growth forest, increasing my anticipation of arriving at the park. Crater Lake National Park had been on my bucket list for years and I finally would get to explore it my favorite way, on foot.

Crater Lake National Park from Watchman Tower

First sight of Crater Lake

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A Stay at the Magical Panacam Lodge in Honduras’ Cerro Azul Meámber National Park

Nestled high up within the lush, carpeted mountains of Western Honduras lies the Cerro Azul Meámbar National Park. Created in 1987 to protect the spectacular, diverse flora and fauna of the park alongside the social and economic needs of the rural communities surrounding it, the relatively unknown Cerro Azul Meámbar National Park is perhaps one of Central America’s best kept secrets. A couple of days stay at the park and the stunning Panacam Lodge is bound to evoke the senses and bring a taste of beauty, adventure and peace into one’s soul.

I had the opportunity to visit the Cerro Azul Meámbar National Park (otherwise known as Panacam) at the tail end of a work trip to Honduras for EOS International, a non-profit that provides safe drinking water and opportunity in Central America. After four days in the field based out of our Marcala office, our staff headed for a two-day retreat at the Panacam Lodge located in the park. I was coming from a day in the field in Gracias, a lovely colonial mountainside town along the famous Ruta Lenca.

The lush cloud forests of Western Honduras beckon

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World Water Day 2022: Making the invisible visible while on the ground in Western Honduras

Today, March 22, is World Water Day, a day designated by the United Nations (UN) to bring attention to the importance and need of safe water worldwide. Water is life, and access to safe water is a fundamental human right. However, 771 million people worldwide continue to live without safe drinking water affecting their health, wellbeing, education, and livelihoods. Water is so critical to life and wellbeing that the UN added it as a Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 6), which commits the world to ensuring that everyone has access to safe water by 2030.

This year’s World Water Day theme is groundwater and making the invisible visible. Groundwater is invisible, lying underneath the dirt, yet its impact worldwide is visible everywhere. Groundwater provides the majority of the water that sustains us. As we face climate change and increased pollution, the role of protecting our groundwater could never be more important. Since the beginning, EOS has been working hard to protect our watersheds by implementing our Circuit Rider model of training, education, and sustainability of rural communities’ water systems.

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Just two weeks ago, I joined our US-based team on a visit to Honduras, and for a few of us, it was our very first time on the ground seeing our work. We watched a water chlorinator being installed in an extremely remote community called La Cañada, located high up in the mountains in Gracias, Honduras. Reaching the community was not for the faint of heart, as the roads are almost non-existent in parts and it requires patience and perseverance to make the bumpy drive up the mountain to reach the village.

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Valahnúkur Sea Cliffs, Iceland

An afternoon in Keflavik: Exploring the Reykjanes Peninsula

After nine days of driving around Iceland’s majestic Ring Road, our very last stop was where it all began, in Keflavik, home of the international airport, the infamous Blue Lagoon, Iceland’s newest volcano and to our delight much more. For more visitors, Keflavik is used as a launching off point for day tours or avoided all together as tourists head straight to Iceland’s trendy capital, Reykjavik right after landing.  That is exactly what we did. Immediately after landing, we rented our car and drove forty minutes to our hotel in downtown Reykjavik where we would spend our first night.

However, a bit of unexpected bad luck actually turned into a spontaneous opportunity for us to spend an afternoon exploring Keflavik and the surrounding Reykjanes Peninsula. Those few hours gave us a taste of all the magnificent natural sites the southwestern corner of Iceland has to offer, with non-existent crowds and surprisingly delightful sights. As long as you steer clear from the volcano and the Blue Lagoon, you are bound to have these special destinations all to yourself and trust me, after experiencing the heavy crowds in the South of Iceland, you will be relieved and overjoyed to not see another soul.

The very first day we landed in Iceland, we hit the Reykjanes Peninsula’s most exciting destination fresh off the plane. After checking into our hotel in Reykjavik and taking a short two hour cat nap, we got back in our car and drove back to the Reykjanes Peninsula where we revved up our energy to hike up to see the Fagradalsfjall volcano.  While this could possibly be down with the itinerary below in one very long day, if you want to truly see the volcano and get the chance to witness an eruption, you should plan on spending at least 5-7 hours there, exploring, hiking and marveling at its delight. While you can do it completely on your own, we chose to hire a local guide who was knowledgeable on the landscape and volcanic activity. It was an incredible experience and one that cannot be missed.

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Vik, Iceland

Ring Road Trip Around Iceland: The Beauty of Vik

At the southern tip of Iceland, only a few short hours drive from Reykjavik lies the lovely, quaint coastal village of Vik. This mystical seaside town is a beautiful place surrounded by long black sand beaches, craggy green mountains, and sharp sea cliffs.  The trademark Vik is most known for is Reynisdrangar, a row of pointed basalt sea stacks that raise up to 217 feet/66 m into the air and have long been used as a landmark and navigational point for sailors. Local lore believes that they were formed when two trolls were unable to find land and turned into stone at sunrise.

I had been to Vik thirteen years ago on my first trip to Iceland and quite honestly was astounded by how much it had grown and changed in such a short time. When we had first went there in 2007 it felt like we were traveling almost on another planet with barely another car in sight and only the crossing sheep to keep us company on the road. The town was only a few homes surrounding Route 1 with not much else except endless nature. Thirteen years later and I was stunned by how much Vik has changed. The once sleepy coastal village of roughly 300 souls has grown into one of Iceland’s premier tourist towns with rows of newly built lodging, hip restaurants and a large grocery store (which if you are traveling around the Ring Road in Iceland, you will instantly realize what a pleasant surprise and rare find a grocery store is!).

To me, the transformation of Vik foreshadows the transformation of Iceland itself. The country immersed from a rather off the wall place to visit for only the true diehard adventurers into a full-blown mainstream tourist destination.  With such incredible growth in tourism comes growing pains and perhaps some unwanted changes. There have often been arguments that there are more tourists than Icelanders in Iceland during the main tourist season of summer. Furthermore, you no longer have famous spots and destinations all to yourself like I did 13 years ago when we went to Jökulsárlón (how disappointing it was to hardly be able to find a parking spot this time!). But if you get off the beaten path enough and are mindful of where you go and stay, you are certain to meet Icelanders and learn a bit about their fascinating culture, history and Icelandic pride. It just takes some research and wanderlust.

Iceland

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Skaftafell Glacier, Iceland

Ring Road Trip Around Iceland: Hike to Skaftafell Glacier

Curving alongside the southeastern tip of Iceland lies the immense Vatnajökull, the largest ice cap outside of the poles which has over 30 glacial tongues sliding down its mystical ice mass to the volcanic ground. A drive around the Ring Road passing the “Glacier of Lakes”, the Icelandic translation of Vatnajökull to English, is a magical, wondrous journey. It is a drive that encompasses some of the most spectacular glacial scenery on earth passing by nostalgic Icelandic farms with everlasting green, Icelandic horses, glacial tongues falling from the sky, the black sand beaches of Vik, the waters of the sea and the dreamy glacial lagoon Jökulsárlón with its sensational icebergs floating harmoniously atop its aquamarine waters. The South of Iceland is so incredibly striking that it feels like a dream.

We left Jökulsárlón around noon continuing our incredible drive south along the Ring Road. I had remembered this very drive from 13 years ago when I first came to Iceland and was mesmerized by her beauty. At each bending turn, one is rewarded with an enormous frozen valley of ice jetting off from the ice cap down into the black, hardened lava fields and dead gray sand.

If it is a cloudy day which is frequent in this part of the world, the view is even more fantastic and mystical. At times it looks like the ice cap rising above is floating high up in the sky like a cloud. It is such an impressive sight that the drive took us double the amount of time to account for each and every stop along the way to take photos of these mammoth glaciers. The glacial tongues seemed to be everywhere and go as far as the eye can see. I continually had to pinch myself to see if I was really there in such an unbelievable place, in a world that is still in the process of being created.

South Iceland

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Jökulsárlón, Iceland

Travel During the Pandemic: A Visit to Jökulsárlón

I rose late after a restless night of endless tossing and turning and worry. The perfect trip that I had planned for our family to Iceland had been drastically altered. I tried to think about the options and the “what if’s” over and over again, spinning circles in my head. The more I tried to research everything online, the less answers I found. I felt like we were in one big mess and there was no easy way out.

We were still in Höfn, with two days left in our Ring Road Trip itinerary. We were in a bit of a pickle as there was no way for me to get back without riding in the rental car with my family who all tested negative, and it would take a minimum of six hours to drive all the way back to Reykjavik. We had already paid for our hotel in Vik and had two of the best days planned of our trip ahead. The only solution we had was to go on with our trip as planned, and try our best to distance me from the rest of the family and not go near anyone outside of our family for the next three days. I layered up in three masks, only left the room to use the bathroom once the whole car was packed up and we set off with all four windows open, heading to our next destination, Jökulsárlón.

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Travel during a pandemic: When things go wrong

We were seven days into our ten-day Ring Road Trip around Iceland when our long-awaited family trip turned upside down. That morning, after a lovely hike along the waterfalls outside the coastal town of Seyðisfjörður, we loaded up our rental car and set off for what was supposed to be the highlight of our trip: A two day visit to the majestic South.

The South of Iceland is so magnificent that most tourists simply fly into Reykjavik and head straight there. Nowhere in Iceland has such immense beauty and hypnotizing magic. Home to the mighty Vatnajökull Ice Cap encompassing 12% of Iceland’s territory, the South of Iceland is graced with endless glacial tongues dripping down to the plains, countless waterfalls, evergreen farmland and stunning seashore all wrapped up in one surreal place.  It is so insanely beautiful that it takes your breath away.

I will never forget my visit 13 years ago, when my father and I first went to Iceland and set off from Reykjavik heading south along the Ring Road to Vik and ending in Skaftafell National Park. I had fallen in love with the South of Iceland and this time, thirteen years later I’d be back bringing my family to this incredible place. I knew exactly where I’d take them, what views we would see and what hikes we would do. Little did we know, our special family trip would soon turn upside down.

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