Four Days, Four Cities in Belgium

The main reason I wanted to go to Belgium was to see a concert, but I figured if we were gonna go at all, we might as well make the most of it and do other things. I’m glad we turned it into an actual vacation, though; Belgium ended up being a really fun trip. It’s a small country, so it’s easy to get around and visit multiple cities on a short stay. Trains are fast and frequent enough that we were able to keep Brussels as our home base. (Pro tip: consult the Belgian train website after buying your ticket, as it can be confusing to know which platform is the right one otherwise.) Here’s how the week went down:

Day 1: Brussels

Belgium prides itself on its history of comic strip artists, and our day in Brussels was mostly centered around that. We visited the Comics Art Museum first, which was… small and underwhelming. They have a supplemental app you can download that adds an AR experience to the museum. It’s a neat idea, but the app is pretty janky.

The best part of Brussels was simply walking around the city and trying to spot the different comic strip murals. There are 70+ murals in all, though we only sought out the ones pinned on the map provided by 203 Challenges.

Comic strip art on the side of a building in Brussels

There are probably better routes out there. The one we followed took us on a fairly long detour to see a mural that was falling apart. But this route at least ensures you see other Brussels highlights like the Manneken Pis statue and Grand Place square:

Grand Place square in the center of Brussels

Day 2: Bruges

Bruges is a more quiet and quaint city that has a canal running through it. We didn’t follow any particular route through town, nor did we visit any specific museums. There are plenty of cathedrals you can peek into, though, as you make your way to the belfry in the market square. The Church of Our Lady is probably the most famous of these cathedrals:

Back view of the Church of Our Lady in Bruges

The above picture is actually the backside of the cathedral. Bruges has lots of great, hidden photo ops like this. But the best photo op was viewing Minnewaterpark from the opposite side of the lake:

Viewing Castillo de La Faille in Bruges from across the water

Day 3: Antwerp

Antwerp was a little difficult to pull off in a day. We only had time for one museum, which was fulfilled by the Museum aan de Stroom (or MAS). And it was fine. Rubens House is another popular museum that we, unfortunately, did not get to see.

For Antwerp, we consulted a walking tour again, this time by Full Suitcase. Their recommendations were good, but we had to cut a lot of things from it, like the zoo and everything north of MAS. I’m glad the tour mentioned Stadspark, though, because it’s a very pretty park:

Stadspark in Antwerp

And I think Antwerp’s town square, the “Grote Markt,” might be my favorite of the cities we visited:

Brabo's Monument in Antwerp

Day 4: Ghent

Every city was worth visiting and had something unique in it, but I liked Ghent the most overall. We used I Am Aileen’s walking tour map, which was probably the most efficient map we had. Aileen does not waste time. My favorite spot was Gravensteen:

Back view of Gravensteen in Ghent

The Gravensteen castle is beautiful inside and out, and the complimentary audio tour is fairly amusing. Saint Nicholas’ Church was another Ghent highlight. Not that the inside of this cathedral was spectacularly different than others, but the size of the building is friggin’ huge. Just look at this view as you approach it from the bridge:

Looking down the road on Sint-Michielsbrug Bridge

And that’s Belgium for ‘ya.

Three Days in (East) Glacier National Park

Alternate titles I was considering: What to Do in Glacier When the Going-to-the-Sun Road is Closed, What to Do When You Don’t Have a Vehicle Reservation, Glacier Hikes That are Actually Doable, etc. This is simply not an easy national park to visit. You have a very small window in the summer when everything is open, and even that’s a gamble with flooding and forest fires possible at the season bookends. Plus, the required vehicle reservations for the main road fill up super fast.

For us, we were able to get a reservation for June 26th, but the Going-to-the-Sun Road still wasn’t fully open. We knew that might be the case, though, which is why we chose to stay on the east side of the park where there are more entry points. In the east, you have the Two Medicine area, Many Glacier, and St. Mary that’s only partway into the Going-to-the-Sun Road.

The other issue with trying to visit Glacier is that this is not a park fit for the casual hiker. Most of the iconic hikes are at least six miles and range from moderate to strenuous. I was traveling with my elderly parents and have a bad knee myself, so we needed to keep it as light as possible. We basically tried to do everything on the Enjoy Your Parks website’s list of best easy hikes, notwithstanding the hikes that were closed. Here’s how it went down:

Day 1: Two Medicine

The Two Medicine area was a good starting point for our trip. It had some of the shorter and easier hikes, and the scenery, while pretty, was not nearly as impressive as the next two days. Our first stop was Trick Falls, also known as Running Eagle Falls:

The Trick Falls waterfall

Afterwards, we hit the South Shore Trail towards Astor Falls. The walk to the falls is very nice, especially as you get into the valley and can see the mountains surrounding you. From the falls, you can continue up to the Astor Park Viewpoint, though be warned that this additional stretch is much steeper. The view isn’t bad, though:

Looking down at Two Medicine from the Astor Park Viewpoint

Unfortunately, many of the trees in Glacier are dead or dying, so viewpoints like this are not going to look as beautiful as pictures you’ve seen before. Alas, it’s just one more way the park is being affected by climate change.

Day 2: Many Glacier

Now this is more what I had in mind. The Many Glacier area was easily our favorite part of the trip and could have been the national park on its own. There are so many great hikes here, but of course we needed to keep it simple. Thus, we chose the Grinnell Lake hike. It’s still seven miles roundtrip, but it’s mostly flat and absolutely beautiful the entire way:

Mountain views on the way to Grinnell Lake

On the hike to Grinnell Lake, you pass by two other lakes: Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine. You can walk along the northern or southern shore of each, and can switch sides going back, but we found that the most scenic route was the south side of Swiftcurrent mixed with the north side of Josephine.

To end the day, we did the almost four-mile roundtrip hike to the Red Rock Falls:

The Red Rock waterfalls

It was pretty tough to follow up a seven-mile hike with another four miles, despite the Red Rock Falls trail being just as easy. If you know you’ll have the stamina to do both, I think it would be better to start the day with Red Rock Falls and end with Grinnell Lake. Moose are supposedly very active near Red Rock Falls in the morning.

Day 3: St. Mary

For our final day in Glacier, we drove as far into the Going-to-the-Sun Road as we could. As of June 26th, the stopping point was the Jackson Glacier Overlook. There is still a lot to see on this eastern side of the road, though. The hike to St. Mary and Virginia Falls, for instance, was well worth the effort:

There are also some great quick-stop overlooks on the road to take in the lake and surrounding mountains, such as the Sun Point Nature Trail:

Viewing St. Mary Lake from Sun Point

Overall, this was a fun trip and probably puts Glacier in my Top 5 favorite national parks. It just saddens me to know the park is changing for the worse, and the glaciers and even the trees might all be gone soon.

A Week on the Big Island of Hawaii

After recent visits to Maui and Kauai, I’ve now been to all four of the main “travel” islands of Hawaii, and I think the Big Island might just be my favorite. If the Kīlauea volcano is currently active when you’re thinking of going to Hawaii, then I would totally recommend choosing Big Island over the others. But even if it’s not, there’s still plenty to do, as you’ll see from my six-day itinerary.

Day 1: Snorkeling and Coffee Farms

We spent the first three nights on the west/Kona side of the island, since that’s where the best snorkeling is. I’ve heard Two Step is a fantastic snorkel spot but also a little difficult, so we started at Kahalu’u Beach Park instead. The waters here are calm, shallow, and there’s a lot of coral the farther out you swim. There are also volunteers at the beach who are very vocal about using reef-safe sunscreen and not standing on the coral, both important messages that I think visitors need to be mindful of.

The water at Kahalu'u Beach Park

When we were in Maui, we made the mistake of trying to squeeze in two snorkel spots per day, which was not easy to pull off. This time, we filled the afternoon by visiting a local coffee farm. There are several coffee farms near Kona that offer tours. We went with Greenwell Farms, because you don’t need to reserve a tour slot ahead of time (and it’s free!).

Coffee trees at Greenwell Farms

Day 2: Snorkeling, Kayaking, and Historical Parks

Another popular snorkel spot is Kealakekua Bay, though access is a bit tricky. Your options are a 3-4 mile hike, a boat tour, or a kayak. We rented kayaks from Ehu & Kai, who were great to work with. Kayaking across the bay was fun but tiring. The tiny, white monument in this picture shows how far you have to paddle:

A monument on the other side of Kealakekua Bay

But the snorkeling was great. I saw a bigger variety of fish here than at Kahalu’u, though Kahalu’u was better overall. It helps that there are facilities at Kahalu’u. In the Kealakekua Bay, the only bathroom is the ocean itself!

For the afternoon, we visited the Pu’uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park. I enjoyed this place a lot more than I thought I would. The surrounding coastline is really pretty, and the history and Hawaiian legends born from here were fun to learn about.

Palm trees at the Pu'uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park

Day 3: Volcanoes and Botanical Gardens

This was the day we switched sides to stay on the east coast near Hilo. The original plan was to drive the southern route and see the green and black sand beaches along the way. However, an accident closed Highway 11 for several hours, forcing us to change plans and drive the “Saddle Road” across the middle of the island.

On the way, we stopped at the Mauna Kea visitor center. Unless your vehicle has 4WD, you cannot go all the way up to the summit of Mauna Kea. So the visitor center is the end of the road, and it’s not a very informative stop. Still, there are some cool views to take in from the surrounding area:

Viewing old volcanoes from Mauna Kea

Farther down Saddle Road towards Hilo, there’s a short Kaulana Manu Nature Trail that was fun to walk through. It’s interesting to see what has grown on top of these older lava flows.

We ended the day by visiting the Hawaii Tropical Bioreserve & Garden not too far north of Hilo. This is probably the best botanical garden I’ve ever been to. The grounds are very pretty with so many different kinds of trees and plants:

The lily pond at the Hawaii Tropical Bioreserve & Garden

And because it’s so close to the ocean, you also get some great bonus lookouts at the coast from here. My wife said this was her favorite day for this garden alone. It’s definitely worth the trip.

Day 4: Volcanoes National Park

The main thing we wanted to see on the Big Island was the national park, and it did not disappoint. Make sure you check the status of the Kīlauea volcano, though. Seeing it actively erupt was really cool. As of May 2022, lava is only visible in the caldera. You can see lava from the main Kīlauea overlook, but the actual eruptions are only visible from the Keanakāko’i overlook. Even then, you will need binoculars to truly appreciate it. The caldera is much farther away than you might think:

The Kīlauea caldera from the Keanakāko'i overlook

We also enjoyed walking through the Thurston Lava Tube and taking the trail down into the Kīlauea Iki pit crater. The highlight for me, though, was driving down Chain of Craters Road towards the Hōlei Sea Arch. No, the sea arch isn’t that spectacular. It’s the drive itself that I enjoyed, to see the different stages of lava as it has flowed towards the ocean:

A wavy lava flow on the Chain of Craters Road

Day 5: Green and Black Sand Beaches

Finally, we headed to the southern side of the island to see the famous green and black sand beaches. The Papakōlea Green Sand Beach is not for the weak, though. It is a 5-6 mile roundtrip hike. While the walk itself isn’t difficult, it can get very hot and windy out there. Yes, there are truck drivers offering to shuttle people back and forth, but the legality of this service is questionable. Many locals are upset that the trucks are tearing up the land. If you choose to walk, you’ll see the destruction for yourself. That final view, though:

The Papakōlea Green Sand Beach

Next, we stopped by the Punalu’u Black Sand Beach. This is a beach you can drive right up to, making it a popular place for people to hang out. It’s also a popular place for turtles to hang out. If you’re lucky, you’ll see turtles sunbathing right there on the beach. For us, we only caught a few glimpses of turtles swimming out in the water.

The Punalu'u Black Sand Beach

Day 6: Waterfalls and Overlooks

Our flight home didn’t depart from Kona until 11:00 at night, so we had plenty of time to make our way back to the other side of the island. I chose the northern road this time to give us a chance to stop at several waterfalls and valley overlooks along the way.

There are many waterfalls on Big Island, but we only saw three: Rainbow Falls, Akaka Falls, and Umauma Falls. Akaka Falls is a state park that has a vehicle and per-person fee. Umauma Falls is on private property and requires signing a waiver and paying a per-group fee. Of these falls, I liked Akaka the most (pictured below), but the rest of my family preferred Umauma Falls.

The waterfall in Akaka Falls State Park

The valley overlooks were a little more out of the way, and I wouldn’t recommend stopping at them unless you have other reasons to be in those areas. Of the two we visited, Waipi’o Valley was the more convenient and prettier overlook:

Looking down into Waipi'o Valley

Going out to Pololū Valley added at least another two hours to our drive and wasn’t as impressive. I did enjoy driving through all of the lush farmland on Highway 250, though. It felt like being in a different country. It really is amazing how parts of this island are fully established while others are still changing from active lava flows.