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Say aloha to authentic Hawaii

by Candyce Stapen

The conch shell call to the ocean, the cascade of a waterfall tumbling in a rainforest, the taste of seared ahi and the lingering resonance of slack-key guitar chords. USA TODAY’s Candyce H. Stapen samples the sights, sounds and tastes of traditional Hawaii on a visit to Maui.

Island flavors

Hawaii cuisine melds the foods and spices used by the Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese and Filipino immigrants brought to work on the sugar and pineapple plantations.

Da Kitchen, with locations in Kahului and Kihei, serves what the owners call “island soul food” — noodles, tempura fish sandwiches, and amazing, supersized plate lunches, a mix of proteins that grew out of the swapping of tasty bites by plantation workers. The Kanak Attack, a “loco moco” local dish, tops rice with chicken, beef, a fried chicken cutlet, two eggs, onions, mushrooms and gravy. Entrees: $10-$20.

At Ka`ana Kitchenin the Andaz Maui at Wailea, my favorite island breakfast buffet features local fare with a modern twist. Try the chorizo pork with scrambled eggs in steamed bao buns served with homemade hoisin sauce, and chicken sausages made with feta cheese, cranberry and spinach. Entrees: $21-$56.

Located in the Grand Wailea Resort, Humuhumunukunukuapua`a is named for Hawaii’s state fish. With its thatched roof, tiki torches and setting atop a large saltwater lagoon, Humu evokes old Hawaii and serves macadamia-nut crusted mahi-mahi and Korean-style fried chicken. Table 70, called the most romantic in Hawaii, juts out over the water and has expansive ocean views. Entrees $31-$64.

Ko,Hawaiian for sugar cane, serves island fare inspired by the cultures of the sugar cane workers. Winner of the 2013 ‘Aipono Awards for Restaurant of the Year and Best Regional Hawaiian Cuisine, it features such highlights as Portuguese bean soup, lobster tempura, lavender honey macadamia nut shrimp and the best paella I ever had. Entrees: $30-$58.

Hotel cultural programs

Even resorts offer Hawaiian cultural programs.

Hyatt’s new Andaz Maui at Wailea has a full-time cultural adviser who gives free talks on Hawaii’s history. Rooms from $499.

Maui News readers rated the Fairmont Kea Lani in Wailea as having the best Hawaiian cultural program. From $549 for four people.

Ocean adventures

Typical experiences include outrigger canoeing and stand-up paddleboarding.

I join one of the Fairmont Kea Lani’s free six-person outrigger-canoe trips. Before we push off, one of the guides blows a conch shell, then chants a prayer. Rhythm is key. When our other guide shouts “hut,” we finish our strokes, and on “ho,” we switch paddling sides. But no one moves when we spot the T-shaped flukes of humpback whales diving deep.

Aboard the Hina, Maui’s only outrigger sailing canoe, I feel the power of the wind and spot a green sea turtle. “King Kamehameha sent hundreds of these single hulls across the channel between the Big Island to conquer Maui,” says Donny Abernathy, our guide from Hawaiian Sailing Canoe Departs from the Fairmont Kea Lani. $99.

Stand-up paddleboarding, the popular sport with a Hawaiian heritage, looks easy. And for my fellow newbies on Napili Bay, it is. After Tiki Man SUP instructor Corby Hettler demonstrates the basics, the others effortlessly glide. But not me. I give up and watch Hettler do perfect yoga positions on his board. 90-minute lesson, $125.

Land experiences

From rainforest treks to artisanal shops, Hawaii boasts an array of uniquely local attractions.

To find the classic Hawaii of rainforests and waterfalls, I join Hike Maui’s outing in the Ho’olawa Valley. En route to 40-foot Twin Falls, guide Jake Noury points out the pineapple patches, taro plants, ti leaves and ginger and heliconia flowers. He picks fiddlehead ferns for us to taste. At the second waterfall, Jake demonstrates how to cannonball into the natural pool before letting the willing in our group take the $149 with hotel pick-up.

In Wailuku, Native Intelligence is the place to find well-designed items that reflect Hawaiian culture and are crafted by local artisans. There are lauhala hats fashioned from pandanus leaves; uli uli, the seed-filled gourds decorated with feathers for hula dancers; and hand-printed pillowcases with contemporary versions of traditional designs.

Local music

No authentic Hawaiian experience is complete without slack-key guitar or ukelele music.

Master slack-key guitarist Ledward Kaapana, recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship, headlines at the Napili Kai Beach Resort during the week I visit. “There was always music,” Kaapana says. “When I grew up in Kalapana, there were no stores and no electricity. My dad, mom and uncle played. I learned from them.” When picked, the slack, or loosened, strings resonate, adding a lingering sound. The host, George Kahumoku Jr., a four-time Grammy winner whose songs are on the soundtrack of The Descendants, also plays tunes with English and Hawaiian lyrics. Evening show: $45. Both musicians teach at the Annual Slack Key Guitar and Ukulele Workshop at the Napili Bay Beach Resort, June 15-22.

Ukulele musician Derick Sebastian performs free at the Andaz Maui, where he also leads free ukulele classes for guests.

Florida’s Best Beaches: East Coast-Gulf Coast Smackdown

by Candyce Stapen, USA Today



It’s the time of the year when visions of sugar soft sands top
travelers’ wish lists. Florida, with its 825 miles of beaches,
lures sunbathers, surfers, action lovers and solitude seekers to its shores.

To find the best Florida strands, USA TODAY hosted an east coast-west coast smackdown. “Dr. Beach,” aka Stephen Leatherman, professor and director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University in Miami, helped select the destinations for each of five categories. Each week, readers voted for one pair of contenders. Here are the champs they chose:

Best family beach

With 95% of the vote, Fort De Soto Park in Pinellas County delivered a near knockout to Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park in Key Biscayne. Situated on five interconnected islands, Fort De Soto features 1,136 acres that include nearly 3 miles of sandy beaches.

“North Beach is the best beach for families,” Leatherman says. “It’s on the gulf and has good swimming. The water is clear and calm. Families can also kayak through the mangroves, fish and boat.”

Kids also like climbing the fort, built in 1898-1900 for the Spanish-American War. Tall pines shade the shore and covered picnic areas come with grills. Four-pawed family members can romp in the dog park.

Located in Tierra Verde at the mouth of Tampa Bay, Fort De Soto Park is south of St. Petersburg.

Best tranquil beach

Although the east coast’s Anastasia State Park, with 1,600 acres, a campground and more than 4 miles of beach, received 42% of the votes, the gulf’s 230-acre Don Pedro Island State Park won with 58%. Don Pedro, part of a chain of barrier islands, can be reached only by the year-round ferry, Pirates Water Taxi, or by private boat. That reduces the number of visitors, which makes sunning and walking more solitary and serene than on easily reached shores.

“Don Pedro is one of the best places in Florida to find shark’s teeth,” Leatherman says. “These black petrified teeth belonged to sharks millions of years ago.”

The island also offers wildlife-watching. “You can spot southern bald eagles, royal terns, American oystercatchers and other birds,” says Martha Robinson, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of State Parks. “Between November to April you can see endangered manatees from the shore. In summer, loggerhead turtles lay their eggs on the beach.”

Best party beach

Despite Daytona’s fine sands, driveable beaches and NASCAR revelers, Panama City, on the west coast, bested its east coast rival by more than 2-to-1.

During three to five weeks in March and April, Panama City pops as one of the prime spring break destinations, attracting as many as 300,000 students. Bikini contests, beer pong and D.Js. liven up the day parties, and the revelry roars on into the night at Spinnaker Beach Club, Club La Vela and other popular spots.

Crowds also come to the town’s many festivals. Toby Keith and Trace Adkins headlined the Pepsi Gulf Coast Jam in September. Panama City’s sixth annual Beach Ball Drop on New Year’s Eve targets families. At midnight, an 800-pound glowing beach ball descends and 10,000 inflatable beach balls drop along Pier Park Drive.

Break from the celebrations to enjoy the shore.

“The beach has super-fine white sand,” Leatherman says. “The water is emerald-colored. It’s great for swimming and … the waves here are measured in inches.”

Best hidden-gem beach

Little Talbot Island State Park may have 5 miles of white-sand beach, but the Gulf Coast’s Anclote Key Preserve State Park won with 63% of the vote. Accessible only by private boat or ferry, Anclote Key Preserve consists of four islands — Anclote Key, North Anclote Bar, South Anclote Bar and Three Rooker Island.

“Most people have never heard of this place,” Leatherman says. “The beach is beautiful although not very big. The swimming is great because there aren’t any waves and the water is warm and clear.”

Located off Tarpon Springs, the preserve is popular with boaters and birders. Bring binoculars to look for roseate spoonbills, bald eagles and pelicans.

Best boardwalk

Leatherman says Clearwater’s 1,080-foot pier and park is “the place to see and be seen. And in ways it’s better than a boardwalk because you get to walk out into the gulf.” Nonetheless, Clearwater’s Pier 60 was trounced by the Hollywood Beach Broadwalk, which won with 63% of the vote.

Built in 1926 and extensively renovated in 2008, the “broadwalk” — a beach-level path with unobstructed ocean views — stretches for 21/2 miles. “It’s very pleasant,” Leatherman says. “You can ride bikes, go inline skating and stroll.” The seaside avenue, about 30 feet wide, includes bicycling lanes and a crushed-shell jogging path.

Hotels, pizza parlors, cafes and restaurants line the route, and free outdoor concerts are held several nights a week. The American Planning Association named the boardwalk one of the top 10 public places in America.


Sweet dreams: Valentine’s Day ultra-getaways

by Candyce Stapen, USA TODAY 7:59 a.m. February 7, 2014

Admire sweeping city views from a private helicopter ride. Dance in a ballroom staged for two. Indulge in a hotel room fragrant with hundreds of roses. Or thrill to fireworks fashioned just for you. Even if you and your sweetie can’t experience these over-the-top Valentine’s Day options, they’re fun fantasies. Here are five sumptuous getaways:

Real bling in Miami

Heart-throbbing highlights: Gift each other with glittery diamonds. Dance in a private ballroom.

Indulgent details: Serious diamonds — 15.4-carat hoop earrings ($50,000 value) for her and 4.34-carat cuff links ($10,000 value) for him — plus dancing in a ballroom staged just for the two of you make this pas de deux sweet. The Ritz-Carlton, South Beach choreographs this “Dazzle You in Diamonds” overnight package around the couple, starting with a personalized dinner from Bistro One LR’s chef de cuisine Gihen Zitouni served outdoors on a cabana bed on the pool deck. Then slow-dance or swirl through the 10,000-square-foot ballroom to favorite tunes requested from your own DJ. Afterward, retreat to your oceanfront suite, perfumed with 100 red roses. Before departure, get that special glow from 110-minute facials using products infused with diamond dust.

Price tag: $100,000 per couple,, 786-276-4000. Cupid Concierge: 786-276-4006

Epicurean delights in Paris

Heart-throbbing highlights: Sip vintage Champagne in a historic wine cellar. Savor dinner prepared by a two-star Michelin chef.

Indulgent details: The luxury for this overnight package begins when you step into your Hermès Rolls Royce Phantom for your chauffeured drive to the Four Seasons Hotel George V, Paris. At the iconic property, steps from the Champs-Elysées, relax in your flower-adorned Penthouse Suite until it’s time for your aperitif served in the wine cellar. Nearly 46 feet underground, the cellar contains 50,000 bottles, hand-picked by award-winning sommelier Eric Beaumard. Sip your Krug Clos d’Ambonnay 1998 Champagne (a bottle sells for about $9,347) in the glow of the candle-lit cave. Back at your suite, with its 360-degree view of Paris and the spires of Sacre Coeur and the Eiffel Tower, tuck into your sumptuous meal prepared by Eric Briffard, the hotel’s two-star Michelin chef. Before departing the next morning, enjoy Champagne breakfast in your suite.

Price tag: About $40,515 per couple,

Royal treatment in Edinburgh

Heart-throbbing highlights: Dine like a queen and king aboard a royal yacht. Watch fireworks created just for you.

Indulgent details: Celebrate like nobility with a private meal aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia. “The UltimateValentine’s Experience” begins with you being welcomed aboard by a piper. Then stroll the moon-lit decks, walking in the footsteps Queen Elizabeth II, Sir Winston Churchill, as well as Prince Charles and Princess Diana, who honeymooned on the vessel. Enjoy drinks in the State Drawing Room prior to a five-course meal accompanied by a classical string duo. The pièce de résistance: fireworks exploding just for you. Consider extending the lord-and-lady experience by over-nighting at a partner property such as the manor-like Gleneagles Hotel set on 850 acres in Perthshire. How do you get there? A chauffeur drives you, of course.

Price tag: About $8,300 for Royal Yacht Britannia meal for two, About $2,280 a night for Gleneagles Hotel,,866-881-9525

Sky-high in Los Angeles

Heart-throbbing highlights:Fly over the city on a private helicopter tour. Dine atop the hotel’s helipad.

Indulgent details: The “Hearts on the Helipad” two-day package from the InterContinental Los Angeles is all about views — from your 30-minute private sweep of the city in a twin-engine helicopter, to your dinner on the 18-story-high helipad at sunset, to panoramas of the Hollywood Hills, the Pacific Ocean and downtown Los Angeles from the wrap-around balcony of the Presidential Suite. In between, relax with a body polish, massage and bathing ritual for two in a couple’s spa villa while refreshing yourselves with strawberries and Champagne. The next morning, linger over breakfast in bed.

Price tag: $11,000 ($8,000 without the helicopter ride) per couple,, 310-284-6500

Sensuous rhythms of Buenos Aires

Heart-throbbing highlights:Dance the tango at local clubs. Horseback ride across a ranch in the pampas.

Indulgent details: Move to the beat of Buenos Aires on this four-day/three-night package offered by TravelSommelier. Melt away jet lag during your couples’ spa experience at the boutique Faena Hotel, your Buenos Aires base. The next day tune up with morning meditation and yoga at the hotel then take a private, guided tour through the city that includes strolls through the trendy neighborhood of Palermo Soho and the cobblestone streets of San Telmo with its antique shops, cafes and plaza. That evening join in the national dance by club-hopping to milongas, venues where locals tango away the night, partnering with each other and with tourists. Then horseback ride across a ranch and feast on a barbecue lunch prepared by gauchos — Argentinean cowboys — who grill your steaks and ribs, pairing them with local wines.

Price tag: $5,669 per couple,, 203-286-8338

For help planning a Valentine’s getaway, contact a travel agent specialist at

Get free admission to national parks on Monday

by Candyce Stapen, USA TODAY 3:25 p.m. January 17, 2014

Assateague Island National Seashore.

Photo: National Park Service

Some of the best views in the U.S. look even better when they’re free. Take advantage of nine days of complimentary admission to America’s national parks—the first is Jan. 20—so you can savor the spectacular scenery and discover the history of these unique places.

“The entrance fees aren’t that expensive, but the National Park Service wants to eliminate any barrier to enjoying the parks,” says spokesperson Kathy Kupper. Typically, children younger than 16 enter without cost and adult fees range from $3 per person to $25 per vehicle for everyone in the car. The get-in-gratis days eliminate those charges at 133 facilities; the remaining 268 parks and monuments of the 401 in the national system never charge entrance fees.

“Most Americans live within an hour or two of a national park,” says Kupper. “Yosemite is not too far from San Francisco, Olympic National Park is reasonably close to Seattle, Joshua Tree is near Los Angeles and the Everglades are easy to reach from Miami,” says Kupper.

The National Parks Trolley, which debuted Jan.4, makes it even easier to access both the Everglades and Biscayne National parks from the Miami area. The shuttle departs from Homestead’s Losner Park every Saturday and Sunday through April. As part of a partnership between Homestead and the parks (separate from the National Parks free days initiative), trolley riders always receive complimentary transportation and admission to the Everglades and Biscayne National parks.

Along with making access more affordable, another goal of the National Parks free days is to remind people of the dramatic views, history and engaging activities available in the parks. (Although free days waive entrance fees, activity fees may apply).

At Florida’s Everglades National Park, a 1.5 million acre subtropical wilderness, for example, you can paddle through mangrove – lined creeks and look for alligators as well as view manatees, bald eagles and dolphins on a naturalist led boat trip through the 10,000 islands.Admire river- carved canyons, desert vistas and keep an eye out for black bears in Big Bend National Park, Texas; learn about the ancestors of the Puebloan people as you view 700-year-old cliff caves at Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, N.M.; and admire the wild horses at Assateague Island National Seashore, Va. and Md.

The free entrance days for the National Parks are:

*Jan. 20, Martin Luther King Jr. Day

*Feb. 15-17, Presidents Day Weekend

*April 19-20, opening weekend of National Park Week

*Aug. 25, National Park Service Birthday

*Sept. 27, National Public Lands Days

*Nov. 11, Veterans Day


‘Downton Abbey’ tours and teas timed for series’ return

by Candyce Stapen, USA TODAY 9:09 a.m. January 3, 2014

Downton Abbey

Photo: Nick Briggs, Carnival File and Television Limited 2012)

It’s not just the characters who develop when the fourth season of Downton Abbey debuts in the U.S. Jan. 5. The popular series has proved fertile ground for a growing cottage industry of getaways, tours and teas designed for fans of the fictional Crawley family and their real-life setting, Highclere Castle.

In the U.S. followers can:

* Get the gossip from former chauffeur Tom Branson, Sea Island resort, Georgia. Allen Leech, who plays Branson, stars in a Downton Abbey-inspired weekend at the upscale resort along with Jessica Fellowes, author of The World of Downton Abbey.

You can test your series’ knowledge at a quiz; listen to behind-the-scenes tales; and dress up as a Lord, Lady, cook or valet for a costume party, cocktail reception and dinner. On Sunday watch the latest episode with Leech and Fellowes who answer questions, then enjoy cigars and port as well as dancing.

Sea Island, Jan. 17-19, rooms from $395. The third night in January (also in February) costs $8, in celebration of the 10th anniversary of the resort’s hosting of the G8 Summit. Most Downton events are complimentary; dinner fees apply.

* Watch episodes in a private screening room and take tea Downton-style, The Langham, Chicago. Invite 11 of your friends to the hotel’s Cinema Suite for marathon sessions of the drama with time out for Champagne afternoon tea. The hotel also hosts a series-inspired afternoon tea, featuring lobster and tarragon pudding tartlets, Charlotte Russe and other Edwardian delights served by white-gloved staff. Cinema Suite, $1299, includes one night’s lodging. Afternoon tea, $40. Both available in January. The Langham,

* Admire the period attire, Winterthur, Wilmington, Del. Aristocrats know how to dress. Costumes of Downton Abbey presents 40 historically inspired pieces from the series. Admire the beading on Lady Mary’s engagement dress, the delicate flow of Lady Sybil’s wedding gown and the barrier-busting swag of Lady Sybil’s harem pants. Winterthur, March 1, 2014-Jan. 4, 2015. $20, admission.

In England, followers can:

* Explore the real Highclere Castle and countryside.

* Extend your river cruise. Viking Cruises offers a three day/two night London and the English countryside land tour that covers Downton Abbey as well as Oxford and London. Available on the eight day Paris and the Heart of Normandy voyage and the 12-day Paris to Prague journey. Viking River Cruises,

* Visit on your own. Book well-in-advance for tickets. The Easter and May tour dates are sold out. Tickets for summer 2014 visits go on sale in February. Check Highclere Castlefor details. About $33, admission to castle, exhibit, gardens.

* Join a tour. Many companies offer day tours from London to Highclere Castle and the Oxfordshire countryside. Arrive like the elite in a chauffeur-driven car or come by bus. Viatour private car, from $228; bus, from $180.

Downton Addbey Highclere Castle

Highclere Castle, Hampshire, England, is the real-life castle used for the fictional Downton Abbey in the popular PBS series, Downton Abbey. (Photo: Britain on View)


10 memorable museum sleepovers for kids of all ages

by Candyce Stapen, USA TODAY 12:48 p.m. January 7, 2014

Museum Sleepovers, Field Museum, Chicago

Photo: Field Museum

Bond with your kids — or grandkids — on a real night at the museum. You can go undercover on spy missions, learn the secrets of caves, discover the science of igloos, meet live baby bears and beluga whales and take flashlight tours through exhibits filled with fierce dinosaurs, huge walruses, mysterious mummies and much more.

Many sleepovers include big-screen movies or planetarium shows plus the chance to sleep near a T-rex, robot, coral reef or a real tiger. Budget-friendly, exciting, and easy to do, these overnights make great parent/child and grandparent/grandkids getaways. Just remember to reserve these popular programs way in advance as they sell out quickly. Here are 10 top museum overnights.

American Museum of Natural History, New York City, AMNH Sleepovers.

On a flashlight tour of the dinosaur exhibits, wend your way among such glowering creatures as the fierce-looking Tyrannosaurus rex with its 4-foot long jaw edged by 6-inch teeth. Get up close to live bats, wolves or even baby bears, depending on the evening’s Audubon Society presentation. Crafts may include creating a totem pole or making moon scratchings. Afterwards, watch the 3-D movie, Mysteries of the Unseen World, before bedding down beneath the iconic big blue whale.

Ages: 6 to 13. One adult required for every three children.

Cost: $145 per person, $135 for members.

Dates: Jan. 10; March 7, 15; April 5, 11; May 2, 17, 41; June 13, 21.

Contact: American Museum of Natural History.

Busch Gardens Tampa, Summer Nights Family Sleepovers, Jack Hanna Family Fun Sleepover

Close encounters with animals and guided hikes at night, a time when the critters tend to be more active, are signature elements of both the Summer Nights and the Jack Hanna Experience. On each you sleep in Tiger World, an indoor area with floor-to-ceiling window views of the tiger habitat. Owls, flamingos and alligators are some of the wildlife showcased by handlers on the Summer Nights Sleepovers, which also give you access to SheiKra, a gut-wrenching coaster with a 200-foot drop. Hanna, for his once a year event, has brought creatures as diverse as aardvarks and zebras to ogle. Listen to the famous animal ambassador’s tales and in the morning, learn about training and feeding tigers from the tiger team.

Ages: Kids in grade 3 or higher. One adult required for every two children.

Cost: 2014 prices are not yet firm. About $80. The fee does not include park admission, 10% pass member discount.

Dates: Summer Nights Family Sleepovers take place in June, July and August. Date to be determined for these and the Jack Hanna Family Fun overnight.

Contact: Busch Gardens Tampa.

Carnegie Science Center, Pittsburgh, Science Sleepovers

Build structures from marshmallows and Dixie cups, then test your item’s durability on an earthquake table during engineering overnights. Create snow dough igloos and figure out the essentials of electric currents, fog and bubbles on Polar Express sleepovers. General overnights cover the science — and importance — of sleep. Get a sense of how exhaustion impedes tasks by donning blurry goggles before completing a challenge and investigate ultraviolet light in a glow room. All programs include an OMNIMAX movie. Sleep near the space station, the robots, the coral reef or anywhere there’s carpet.

Ages: 4-10. One adult required for every eight children.

Cost: $35 per person.

Dates: Feb. 14 Engineering; March 15, 21, 28; Apr. 11,18; May 2; Oct. 24 Spooky Science; Nov. 21 Light Up Night; Dec. 13 Polar Express.

Contact: Carnegie Science Center,

Cincinnati Museum Center, Cincinnati, Caves!, Explore!

Choose from two overnight programs at this complex of museums. With Caves! learn about bats, beetles and other nocturnal life at the limestone caves in the Museum of Natural History & Science. Meet turtles, snakes or tarantulas at the docent-led talks. In the morning, watch the OMNIMAX film A Journey into Amazing Caves. With Explore!, you and your kids browse both the natural history facility as well as the Cincinnati History Museum on your own, pausing to talk to a steamboat captain, set type at the print shop, practice weaving with a pioneer woman and get hands-on at more work stations. In the morning view Tornado Alley, an OMNIMAX movie.

Ages: 8-12. One adult required for every four children.

Cost: $28 per person.

Dates: Caves! Jan. 10, Feb. 8, March 21, May 9. Explore! Jan. 25, March 22, April 18.

Contact: Cincinnati Museum Center.

Field Museum, Chicago, Dozin’ with the Dinos

Walk through an Egyptian tomb, past the sarcophagi and mummies on a flashlight tour of Inside Ancient Egypt and go on a night-time safari past mounted giraffes, hippos and lions in the African savannah exhibit. Depending on the worshop, touch monster-size bugs or uncover fossils. With a premium package and tour ticket, you also get a behind-the-scenes look at fossils, fish or other specimens with a museum scientist. Sleep on the main level with a standard pass, or bed down next to the dinosaurs with a premium pass.

Ages: 6 to 12. One adult required for every three children.

Cost: Standard $63 per person, $55 Field members; Premium package, $75, $65; Premium packages with tour ticket, $87, $77.

Dates: Jan. 10, 31; Feb. 7, 21, 28; March 14, 28; May 9, 30.

Contact: The Field Museum.

International Spy Museum, Washington, D.C., KidSpy Overnight: Operation Secret Slumber.

Morph into a secret agent to complete a clandestine mission. After you and your budding spies choose aliases, create disguises and memorize your new identities, the adults go undercover in one group while the kids work together in another. See which team does better at decoding messages, locating dead drops (where spies hide things in plain sight) and unmasking the mole in your midst.

Ages: 9 to 13. One adult required for every two children.

Cost: $115 per person, $105 for members.

Dates: Nov. 8-9, 2014. (The March session sold out months ago).

Contact: The International Spy Museum.

Milwaukee Public Museum, Overnights

By flashlight, trek past a Masai lion hunt in Africa, walrus and polar bears in the Arctic, fierce masks made by natives in New Guinea and other exhibits. Each overnight also includes a planetarium show or a giant screen movie plus themed hands-on activities. On the Mummies sleepover, make a mummy wrap or learn to fashion a figure according to the ancient Egyptian canon of proportions. Sleep near the forests in the Wisconsin Woodlands or the colorful figures in a modern powwow that’s part of A Tribute to Survival.

Ages: 6 to 12. One adult required for every five children.

Cost: $47 per person, $37 for members.

Dates: April 11 Safari; May 16 Raiders of the Lost Artifact; June 20 Wildlife Adventures; July 25 Mummies; August 15 Streets of Old Milwaukee.

Contact: Milwaukee Public Museum.

National Aquarium, Baltimore, Sleepover with the Sharks, Sleepover with the Dolphins.

Both the shark and the dolphin overnights feature hands-on labs and the chance to venture onto the Shark Alley catwalk so you’re inches above the toothy predators. On a shark sleepover, listen to the squawks and screeches of the nocturnal animals during a no-lights tour of the aquarium’s rain forest and touch real shark jaws, teeth, skin and egg cases in the Shark Discovery Lab. On a dolphin overnight, watch the clever mammals speed swim, jump and splash with their flukes in the dolphin amphitheater; and handle dolphin, seal and sea otter skulls in the Dolphin Discovery Lab. In the morning watch a trainer teach a dolphin to play ball and learn how to signal the intelligent creatures for a blowhole whistle or a fluke presentation.

Ages: 8 and older. One adult required for every 10 children.

Cost: $114.95, $102.95 members

Dates: Sharks: Feb. 14, 28; Mar 14; Dolphins: Jan. 3, 17, 31; Feb. 7, 21; Mar 7, 21, 28

Contact: National Aquarium.

Saint Louis Science Center, Camp Ins

Geared to a theme, the family camp ins feature science demonstrations, an OMNIMAX film or a planetarium show, free time to explore the museum and activities targeted to both older and younger kids. Teens construct an animatronic dinosaur while younger kids fashion the big critter’s teeth out of resin during Dinosaurs in Motion. Build rockets and use simulators to fly a plane as part of the Planetarium camp in. Learn about fingerprints, analyze germs in the Life Sciences Lab and solve a crime as part of the Sherlock Holmes sleepover.

Ages: Kids in grades K through 12 for Dinosaurs; K through 8th grade for Planetarium; 3rd grade through 12th for Sherlock Holmes. One adult required for every five children.

Cost: $50 per person; $45 members.

Dates: April 25 Dinosaurs in Motion; Sept. 19 Planetarium; Oct. 24 Sherlock Holmes.

Contact: Saint Louis Science Center.

SeaWorld San Diego, Father’s Day and Halloween Sleepovers

Polar bears, beluga whales and big walruses star in the Wild Arctic, Father’s Day overnight. Find out how these animals fit their environment, learning about their food, fat and, for the bears, their thick fur and powerful paws. Then roll out your sleeping bag near the viewing window to the polar bears’ habitat. On the Halloween Spooktacular, tour a special Animal Connections open house to find out how trainers care for the park’s turtles, lizards and birds and view snakes, spiders and other “spooky” creatures. Last year’s Halloween event, included breakfast with Shamu.

Ages: 4-14

Cost: June, $145, $115 for Premium Pass members; Oct. $165, $135 for Premium Pass members. Fees include park admission after breakfast.

Dates: June 14, Father’s Day; Oct. 25th, Halloween Spooktacular

Contact: SeaWorld San


The best gifts for family travel

by Candyce Stapen, USA TODAY 1:48 p.m. December 17, 2013

Polaroid 2 tablet

The Polaroid 2 tablet keeps kids happily occupied with games, videos and drawing apps.

Families on the go have special needs. These products either cleverly engage kids, making travel time fly by, or the items offer simple solutions to big worries.


Polaroid Kids Tablet 2 For the product’s second generation, kid critics pointed Polaroid toward such improvements as increased speed, two cameras—front and rear facing—and more games. Bumpers add durability and the 1024 x 600 resolution for the 7-inch display makes the content look good. The tablet comes loaded with more than 70 books, apps, games and videos from the Cartoon Network, Marvel and Disney. Our kid testers, ages 6 and 8, especially liked the games and the art app, Drawing Pad, an award-winning app created by Darren Murtha Design. Ages 4-9. Polaroid, $150, sold exclusively through Toys R Us.

ALSO ONLINE: Coolest travel gifts for Christmas

Nabi Jr. At about 6.5 inches by 4 inches, the Nabi Jr. by Fuhu, fits into pre-schooler’s hands. The 5 inch display with 800 x 480 resolution, while not as crystal clear as other tablets, is fine for little ones. The home screen’s six squares represent six main options, making it easy for kids to choose. Along with a camera and a photo gallery, kids can pick sing-along ditties under Music, storybooks to read or hear aloud with MeeGenius, or complete basic math, reading and writing exercises with the Wings Challenge. Parents can add tasks to a chore list and reward kids with points. Tap the home screen’s row of dots to select from 30 simple games and apps. Kids can color, match animals, solve dinosaur-shaped puzzles and more. (We noticed some misspelled words in the Car, Ship & Rocket game). Despite that, the Nabi Jr. is a good basic tablet. More apps can be downloaded through Wi-Fi. Although Fuhu pitches Nabi Jr. for ages 3-6, the sweet spot is more likely ages 3-5. Fuhu, $100; $140 Nick Jr. version has games and videos with Nick Jr. characters.

Sensu Brush

Photo: Sensu Inc.

Fingers are often too fat for fine line creation and a regular stylus can create drag. The Sensu brush prevents these problems.


Sensu Portable Artist Brush & Stylus This digital brush feels, looks and moves across a tablet or smartphone screen like something Monet might have used for his plein-air paintings. Fingers are often too fat for fine line creation and a regular stylus can create drag. The Sensu brush prevents these problems. Pair the easy- to-take-along tool with a kid-friendly artist’s app such as Drawing Carl, Finger Painter, or Fresh Paint and your children can create magical drawings to document your trip. The Sensu Solo has only a brush tip. The compact Sensu Portable Artist Brush & Stylus has a brush on one end and a stylus for sketching, writing and erasing on the other end. Both Sensu products, definitely not just for kids, will delight painters, drawers, doodlers and dabblers of all ages. Sensubrush, $25 Sensu Solo brush; $40 Sensu Portable Artist Brush & Stylus.

Light My Way Nightlight

Kids can carry the Light My Way Nightlight by Munchkin with them.(Photo: Matthew Fried)


Light My Way Nightlight Tots unaccustomed to sleeping in hotel rooms or even in grandma’s big house might worry about monsters that lurk in dark corners. But not with the Munchkin nightlight standing watch. The owl-shaped light, 6.25 inches high from base to top, looks like a friend and uses batteries. So instead of being stationary in an electric outlet, the big-eyed critter functions like a lantern, complete with easy to grasp handle. Your child can place the Light My Way on a night stand or take the owl with her to the bathroom. A timer turns the nightlight off after 20 minutes, but kids—or parents—can switch it back on for more sessions., $16.99 at Toys R Us, Walmart, Target and other retailers.


SafetyTat It’s every parent’s nightmare: your child too young to talk or to remember your phone number, goes missing at the amusement park, the airport, the museum or the shopping mall. Created by a mom, SafetyTats are temporary tattoos with your cell phone number that you can place on your tot’s arm. That way the kindly stranger who finds him will know whom to call. Online you can order the customized versions, applied with water, that come printed with your information (these last one to three days). The Quick Stick Write-on version, applied like a band-aid, comes with a marking pen, lasts longer and is available online and in stores. Safetytat, $6.99-$16.99.

More: Tips for stress-free family holiday travel


The best gift for families? A trip together!

by Candyce Stapen, USA TODAY 3:02 p.m. December 15,2013

Best gift for families

A family on a guided safari outing from Davison’s Camp, Zimbabwe, view a herd of Cape buffalo.

Forget flat-screen TVs, robotic toys and even tablets. The trendy gift this season is a trip together, especially for families.

“Materialism is taking a backseat to experiences, ” says Darren Humphreys, owner Travel Sommelier, a safari and gastronomic travel company.  “The giver — the grandparent or the baby boomer — realizes that what’s important is spending time in a special environment with people who are important to you.”

That’s why trips trump other gifts for families. “Our busiest travel week is now Christmas week, “says Dan Austin, Austin Adventures president. “A big and increasing segment of our business is multigenerational travel.  Our multigenerational travel over the holidays has doubled,” says Austin.

Austin credits the bump to several things.  “We first started seeing an increase in gifts of multigenerational trips and grandparent/grandchild vacations in 2008-2009 when the economy was struggling. Adults were looking hard at what they were gifting. Giving time together is much more valuable than anything else. And we’ve seen double-digit growth for these trips every year since 2008/2009.”

Wilderness Safaris‘ North American manager Craig Glatthaar notes that the company’s family travel business has increased 20%-25% in the last five years. “With the technological revolution, we’ve become more and more detached from nature,” says Glatthaar. “The older generation wants to give the younger ones an appreciation for nature. We see more and more families with young children age 6 and older as well as more multi-generational trips with grandparents, their children and grandchildren.”

After all, think about what’s remembered fondly at family gatherings.  Last year’s big TV purchase may not even be mentioned. “You’re more likely to relive the adventure trip you took together,” says Austin, who sees Yellowstone as a stepping stone for a grandparent/ grandchild trip.

“Maybe the grandparents went there as kids and now want to show their grandchildren, “says Austin. “The next year that family is adding going further away so they might do the Canadian Rockies or Costa Rica and then the Galapagos or cycling trips in Europe.”

REI Adventures has also experienced a rise in holiday family trips. “A lot of times grandparents will take the whole family as a holiday gift, “says manager Cynthia Dunbar. ” The Galapagos and Costa Rica are popular over the holidays,” says Dunbar.  “We launched our family trips seven years ago and the number of departures has increased an incredible amount.”

Not only does adventure add fun, but it encourages interaction. “Out of your home environment, out of your comfort zone, you converse, you interact, “says Humphreys. ” On a safari a family is in a vehicle a couple of yards away from a lion.”

That gets families talking to each other.   Nancy Ozizmir, Greenwich, Conn., calls the South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe safari Travel Sommelier arranged last year for herself, her husband Dan, and children Daniel, 16, Annika, 13, and Charlotte, 9, “the best family vacation we have ever taken.”

Says Ozizmir, “On a ski trip, we ski at different levels so we’re apart a lot. A safari is very much about togetherness. We were together in the jeep with our guide. We were excited seeing the zebra, leopard, lions and rhinos. The kids learned so much.”

And not just about the animals. Humphreys arranged for the Ozizmirs to visit a small village in Zambia.

“The people were so happy to see us because they were curious and excited. We were too, ” says Ozizmir. “The villagers lived in mud or straw huts. There was one well for the whole village. Some kids didn’t have shoes, but the kids were smiling and laughing. My kids gave them piggyback rides. My kids were impressed by the villagers’ warmth. The people were lit from within. My kids realized that you do not need things to be happy.”

And that’s a timeless gift that can come from traveling together.

Who are the most annoying fliers? Survey says

Candyce Stapen, USA TODAY 6:58 a.m. December 14, 2013

Most annoying fliersSky misdemeanors continue with the audio insensitive who speaks or cranks his music up too loudly, 19%, and tying for seventh and eighth place with 13% each are the seat-back guy who reclines his chair full tilt, and the carry-on baggage offender who totes too much luggage onboard. The back seat grabber, that person behind you who launches himself upright by clutching your seat back, and the queue jumper, the one who elbows down the aisle to deplane before everyone else, each received 12% of the bad behavior votes.

According to Expedia, 10% of the 1001 surveyed reported engaging in sex with a fellow flight mate. Nonetheless, respondents deemed inappropriate levels of affection a social breach when it involved someone else, giving the amorous, a 9% disapproval rating.

However, the actions at 30,000-feet are not all etiquette disasters.  More than three-quarters of respondents — 79% — report experiencing the kindness of strangers. Most often, the  good deeds were switching seats, 32 %, helping with luggage, 12%, and sharing food or drinks, 8%.

So have you been naughty or nice?

Airplane etiquette

Expedia’s guide to violations of airplane etiquette. (Photo: Expedia)

Former Robben Island inmate leads memorable prison tour

by Candyce Stapen, USA TODAY 6:19 p.m. December 6, 2013

Robben IslandWe stood in the yard of Robben Island Prison, looking at the tennis court that some prisoners were allowed to use for exercise.

“We would take a tennis ball, cut a small opening in it, put a note inside and hit the ball over the wall,” said Patrick Matanjana, who spent 20 years jailed at the facility. “That’s how we communicated with prisoners in other cell blocks.”

Matanjana’s personal recollections and his dignified presence, made the tour vivid, powerful and memorable. Former prisoners escorting visitors through prison buildings were common more than a decade ago when I visited. Some former prisoners still lead tours.

At age 19 in 1967, Matanjana became prisoner 7067. “They gave you a number because the wardens could not pronounce your name,” said Matanjana, housed in the same cell block as Mandela for some of the time. Pointing to Mandela’s cell, Matanjana said “For a time he had a cot, but Mandela was tall so when he would go to sleep his head and feet would touch the walls.”

How did Matanjana get through 20 years of prison?

“The first day I walked through the door I was worried. I didn’t know if I could do it. How was I going to stay 20 years in this prison?,” said Matanjana. “But when I was inside two or three days, I saw Mandela and some others who were doing a life sentence. I thought ‘What is 20 years compared to a life sentence?, ” said Matanjana.

Mandela served as a leader, a coach, and an inspiration for the prisoners.

“In the beginning there were no doors on the toilets, no privacy. We smuggled a petition to request changes. Mandela told me ‘When you go and talk to the guys, face the man. He is a man and you are a man.'”

Through hunger strikes and other actions, the prisoners, led by Mandela, fought for the right to be educated.

“Education sustained us. You could not think about your family, your girlfriend. You had to in some way forget those people because there was nothing you could do. But when many came here they could not read or write and some left with university degrees.”

What did he feel when being released in 1987? ” I cried tears when I left because I was leaving behind Mandela and the others who were doing life sentences,” said Matanjana.

As we made our way to the exit, I asked him if he was angry.

“There is no bitterness. You cannot take Apartheid out the door and bring it back in the window. As Mandela (told us), we cannot correct a wrong thing by doing that very wrong thing. I am proud in the sense that all that we have been fighting for we achieved.”

I thanked Matanjana for his tour, telling him that I didn’t think I could ever be so forgiving. He smiled at me, squinting in the bright light, a result of years of chopping salt mounds in the glare of the South Africa sun. “We were creating the foundation for the next generation. In spite of all that happened, I forgave to rebuild our country.”

Photo from stock


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