Photo of the Day – Sea turtle in action

Snorkeling is one of my favorite travel activities, especially because it’s such a visual feast. Simply grab a mask and some fins, stick your head underwater and suddenly you’re staring at an alien world: bright neon-striped fish, strange wispy corals and of course, the graceful sea turtle. Flickr user kumukulanui snapped this beautiful specimen in action just off the coast of the Big Island in Hawaii. Of all the spots I’ve been snorkeling, the Big Island has to be one of the best, particularly to get up close with these amazing, beautiful creatures.

Taken any great travel photos recently? Why not share them with us by adding them to the Gadling group on Flickr? We might just pick one of yours as our Photo of the Day.

The best places in the world to smoke a cigar

Smoking a cigar the correct way demands a critical mix of solitude, contemplation, and most important, awareness of surroundings. All other things become subservient to the act of observing and evaluating. With this game plan in play, the smoker’s post-ignition environs take on as much importance as the flavor, taste, and draw of the tobacco. Here is one man’s list of the top ten places in the world to smoke a cigar.

10. Right before the Ironman Triathlon World Championships in Kona, Hawaii.
Kailua Kona is usually a sleepy tourist town on the western side of the Big Island of Hawaii. But once a year, in late October, the best athletes in the world gather for the Ironman Triathlon World Championship. The 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride, and 26.2 mile marathon takes most competitors most of the day, so the gun goes off at 7 a.m. sharp as upwards of 2,000 swimmers turn “Dig Me” Beach into a feeding-frenzy of arms, legs, and splashes. Light up early, puff and marvel; let your cigar tell the crowd, “I’d rather die young that try something like this.”

9. Seated in the square before the Piazza Duomo in Florence, Italy.
Brunelleschi’s Duomo (1296) in so beautiful, so massive, so spiritual, that a visitor has to sit and puff and wonder: Could this masterwork actually have been created by man? Have a demitasse from one of the square’s little bistros, enjoy the soundtrack provided by the voices of passing Italians, and let your cigar smoke rise up and mix with the angels flying above the Dome.
8. Atop the Smoking Platform in Colchester, Vermont.
In the dooryard of an old farmhouse in northern Vermont stands a twenty foot granite cliff. Atop that cliff sits a chair and a small table holding an ashtray, a pack of wood matches, and bug spray. The owner of the house climbs the cliff once a week to enjoy a solitary smoke. “You’re such a child,” the smoker’s wife tells him, “You’ve built a fort up there, just like a little kid would.” “Rather,” he informs her, “it is a Gentleman’s Smoking Platform.”

7. At the gaming tables in Las Vegas, Nevada.
It might be changing, but the casinos have remained one of the few public places in America where cigar smoking is not only permitted, but encouraged. Try apologizing for your smoke as you lean over the Caribbean Stud table, and the lovely lady at your right might actually tell you she’s been enjoying the aroma. Plus: Cigar smokers always look like winners, even when they’re not.

6. On the French Quarter in New Orleans.
Katrina delivered a near-deadly body blow to the city, but its soul survived and is reinvigorated. Smell the Cajun cooking and listen to the muted jazz lifting up from the street. The still air and pressing humidity combine to make blowing smoke rings as effortless as breathing.

5. At the rail of Saratoga Racetrack, Saratoga, New York.
The oldest continually operating track in the country, and still one of the stateliest. Faux southern belles mix with true-life losers. Dixieland bands and picnic tables. Three bucks to get in. Everyone has a system and everyone has just won big. Continue the tradition started by Red Aurebach of the Boston Celtics-after one of your “wins,” light up a victory cigar to celebrate, and to let the crowd know that you know how to pick ‘em.

4. Halfway up Pioneer Peek, outside of Anchorage, Alaska.
The city is closeted by the Chugach Mountains, with so many massive peaks that some don’t even have names. Drive just a few miles up the highway towards Fairbanks, pull off and park, and start hiking/climbing up a peak that maybe nobody has ever climbed before. Before too long eagles will be flying by at eye level; airplanes will actually be lower than you. Sit. Marvel. Ignite.

3. After sundown in the early springtime of Phoenix, Arizona.
How many tourist destinations can list March as one of its best months to visit? The dessert really does cool down after dark. Step out among the Saguaro Cactus and light up. Pretend you’re a daredevil and the flame at the end of your cigar is warding off the coyotes and the rattlers.

2. On the street of Duck Alley, New York (or in whatever town you grew up).
There, you can use the cigar as your time machine, transporting you back to your first smoke, your oldest pal, your first love.

1. In the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge, Brooklyn/Manhattan, New York.
The verdict is in: The Brooklyn Bridge is the most beautiful edifice ever created by man. When the Roeblings, father and son, designed and built the bridge in the 1870′s and 80′s, it was roughly equivalent to someone building a bridge to the moon. The Bridge’s combination of engineering and artistry has never been equaled. Walk the foot path halfway across the East River, sit on a bench and gaze at the cathedral-like towers. Iron cables will cut squares and trapezoids above your head in the sky. Smoke there, and think about what man has wrought. Look over your shoulder at the Twin Towers site only if you want to be reminded that the work of man isn’t always this magnificent.

Jim DeFilippi is a crime novelist and cigar maker living in northern Vermont. His recent novels include The Family Farm and Duck Alley. Read his blog on Red Room.

[Photos: Flickr | alexbrn; Monica Arellano-Ongpin; bobistraveling; valentinapowers]

Big Island Hawaii: A budget travel guide

Adrift in the Pacific, Hawaii is expensive. It costs more to get there, it costs more to ship goods there. It just costs more. Looking at the websites of the many luxury hotels on the Big Island, you might think you can’t afford it. But you can visit the Big Island of Hawaii on a smaller budget. Here are a few tips to help you do it.

Forget the luxury hotels.
At $300, $500, or even more per night, staying in a luxury hotel will add up quickly. Try VRBO or Home Away to score a rental home on the cheap, or Couchsurf and stay with a local for free. For cheap accommodations, try a backpacker’s lodge like Arnott’s where private double rooms are $70 and dorm bunks are $25. You can even camp at ten locations around the island for a permit fee of $5 per adult per night.

If you still want some degree of luxury without the accompanying price tag, stay at a hotel off the beach. A one bedroom cottage with kitchen at Nancy’s Hideaway near Volcanoes National Park will run you just over $100 per night. If you want to be closer to the action, check out the Kona Tiki Hotel, a mile outside of town. It’s definitely “no-frills” but costs only $72 per night and is a short taxi ride from the beach. Across the island in Hilo, the Hilo Bay Hostel offers dorm beds for $25 and private doubles for $65, one block away from the ocean.

Use the public beach.
Your hotel will be the biggest cost of your trip to the Big Island. Save money here and you can spend more on activities, experiences and meals.

Of course nothing sounds more luxurious than walking from your private lanai just a few feet to the beach. But the ocean is the same whether it fronts a hotel beach or not. In fact, many luxury hotels share the beach with public parks. Hapuna Beach State Park, for example, is considered one of the Big Island’s best, and you don’t need to stay at the Hapuna Prince Beach Resort to enjoy it. On many of Hawaii’ public beaches, you’ll find food vendors, picnic areas, restrooms and showers. In both Hilo and Kona, there are several beaches you can easily access even without a rental car.

Drive yourself. . .
There are countless tour operators offering tours all over the island – to Volcanoes National Park, through the Waipi’o Valley, and up to the heights of Mauna Kea. But you don’t need a tour guide to see any of these sights. And you don’t need a fancy 4-wheel drive vehicle either (except for visiting the top of Mauna Kea). Sure, tooling around the island in a convertible or open-topped Jeep would be fun, but really the cheapest, most basic compact car will do.

If you plan wisely, you can actually drive around the entire island, making several pit stops for sightseeing, in one day. If you are leaving from Kona, stop at the Waimea Farmer’s Market to fuel up and buy snacks for the road, then spend the morning at Parker Ranch, the island’s oldest cattle farm. From there you’ll pass through the verdant forests and rolling hills of the Hamakua coast to Hilo. Stop for a view of ‘Akaka Falls and the continue on the two hour drive to Volcanoes National Park. Just past Hilo, you can also stop for a tour of the Mauna Loa macadamia nut factory, Monday through Saturday from 8:30am to 5pm.

It’s easy to drive yourself through Volcanoes National Park without a guide. Just stop off at the visitor’s center first to get a lay of the land and a map and to learn about the day’s conditions and any road closings. The cost for the park is $10 per vehicle for seven days, but really you can see most of the Park in a few hours. Driving down to Puna, where the hot lava hits the ocean, will add a few more hours to the journey.

From Volcanoes National Park, you can head back the way you came or continue around the island. If you do, be sure to stop at Volcano Winery for some free samples (from 10am to 5:30pm every day) of sweet, fruity wine made from ingredients like guava and macadamia nut. Venture down to South Point, the southernmost spot in the US, and then on to Green Sand Beach. As you come back around the southern end of Kona, you’ll find yourself in coffee country, where signs every few miles beg you to stop off for a coffee plantation tour and tasting.

Be sure to bring a few CDs with you if you plan on making the drive all the way around the island. From Volcanoes National Park to south Kona, you’ll be lucky to find a single radio station. Be careful driving at night on the island – you may be surprised how dark it is in areas with no streetlights – and don’t drink and drive.

As you make your way back to Kona, detour to Mauna Kea just in time for sunset. Once it’s dark, you’ll find that you are in one of the best spots in the world for stargazing. The mountain’s elevation, plus the lack of light pollution on the island, make for an exceptionally clear sky.



. . . and then ditch the car for a few days.

If you are staying in the towns of Hilo or Kona, you really won’t need a car every day. Most shops and restaurants will be within walking distance and while you do need a car to get out and explore the island on your own, you really won’t need one to get around in town, so save money by renting a car only for the days you will need it. Get a little exercise while you get around by renting a bike from Kona Bike Rentals, where rentals start at $15 a day for adult bikes.



Stock up at the farmer’s markets and eat on the cheap.
In Hilo, the Farmer’s Market is located on Mamo Street and Kamehameha Avenue and is open all year round, every Wednesday and Saturday, “from dawn ’til it’s gone.” In Waimea, the market is located in the center of town, along highway 19, and is open most of the day on Saturdays. In addition to sweet Portuguese Bread, creamy macadamia nut pesto goat cheese, and gigantic breadfruit, lemons, and avocados, you can get freshly prepared treats like spicy huevos rancheros, gooey sweet Nutella crepes, and sinfully rich glazed cinnamon rolls.

For the best beer on the Big Island, head to Kona Brewing in Kona. Take a brewery tour (daily at 10:30am and 3pm) or just settle in for some good pub grub and tasty beers. Pints aren’t super cheap at $5, but the Pipeline Porter, made with 100% Kona coffee, is worth the price tag. Appetizers are reasonable at $7-12 and delicious and huge large pizzas (which can easily feed three people) are $16-26 and come with toppings like Thai chicken, Andouille sausage, and shrimp. Grab a growler of your favorite beer for $22 to stock in your hotel room. Buy it from 5pm – 7pm and save 20%.

This trip was paid for by the Kohala Coast Resort Association, but the views expressed are my own.

10 great destinations for scuba diving adventure (videos)

Dive in and explore the underwater landscapes of some of the world’s most exotic and interesting locales. Whether you’re a veteran scuba diver, or someone who’s always wanted to test the waters, here’s your chance to visit some of the world’s top dive destinations. Experience what it’s like to venture into the deep in this video roundup of 10 great destinations for scuba diving.

Bali, South Pacific
Long hailed as a crown jewel amongst scuba divers for its idyllic location, warm waters, underwater diversity, and plentiful wrecks, Bali beckons with its aquatic spell.




Cabo San Lucas/Sea of Cortez
Dubbed “The World’s Greatest Aquarium” by Jacques Cousteau for its lushness of life, the waters off the Baja California peninsula are bursting with adventure. Veteran divers will not disagree.



The Red Sea, Egypt
Labyrinthine canyons, calm grassy flats, and deep water reefs have assured The Red Sea’s place as an underwater Eden.





Kona, Hawaii
Night diving with schools of manta rays off the Big Island is near the top of every diver’s “To Do” list. Here’s why.





Cozumel, Mexico
Home of the second largest barrier reef in the world, unparalleled drift diving and a 3000-foot vertical drop into “The Abyss,” Cozumel is a diver’s paradise.





The Cayman Islands
Often called “The Birthplace of Scuba Diving,” the Cayman Islands boast an abundance of magical waters and unique undersea topography.





Cocos and Malpelo Islands/Costa Rica and Columbia
What do these two remote Central American dive sites share in common? Plenty of beautiful underwater vistas and hammerheads… lots of hammerheads.





The Great Blue Hole, Belize
A true geographic marvel! Explore the depths of this unforgettable dive featuring underwater stalactites and brilliant coral gardens.



The Great Barrier Reef, Australia
One of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, the largest superorganism on earth is like nowhere else on earth.





The Bahamas
Gin clear waters and sandy shallow seas are a recipe for shark-laden encounters in this pristine Caribbean island chain!



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Scuba diving is not only a fun, relaxing recreational activity, it’s also a great way to learn about fish, coral, and the ocean — three things our planet can not live without.

Big Island Hawaii: Get your adventure on

There’s virtually no limit to the adventures you can have on the Big Island of Hawaii. SCUBA, snorkel, watch whales pass in season, take a helicopter flight over the island, or view lava up close from a boat, watching the fiery rivers pop and hiss as they land in the ocean. On the Kohala Coast, many of the resorts offer easy access to some of the island’s most unique activities. For others, well…you’ll need to get a bit more creative.

Stand-up paddleboarding
Kona Village resort offers guests several options for traditional Hawaiian water-sports, including stand-up paddleboarding, through its Alaka’i program. Alaka’i means “ambassadors of the waves” and the staff here really do try to fulfill that role by teaching guests not just about the logistics of each activity, but also about its historical and cultural significance to the islands. The Junior Alaka’i program is geared for kids 10-17 and includes three days of lessons in activities like paddleboarding, windsurfing, free diving, and outrigger canoeing. Guests at the Four Seasons Hualalai can also use the equipment at Kona Village.

Elsewhere on the Big Island, you can rent a board from Hilo’s What Sup Big Island, where daily paddleboard rental is $65, or $75 for a half day with lunch and beginner lesson.



Outrigger canoeing

Outrigger canoes, traditional Hawaiian boats, resemble regular canoes that have an added support (called an outrigger) added to one side. These canoes can go quite fast, and are more stable in rough waters than regular canoes. As part of Kona Village’s Alaka’i program, guests can learn to paddle one, and once they have successfully learned to maneuver a six-person outrigger canoe, they are free to use one and two-person canoes on their own for the remainder of their stay.

On the Kohala Coast, the Fairmont Orchid also offers outrigger canoe excursions and Sky Blue Canoe offers lessons and rentals. A 90-minute tour is $65.

Surf lessons
It’s practically sacrilege to go to Hawaii and not take a surf lesson. The instructors at Kona Mike’s Surf Adventures are all certified in CPR , First Aid, and professional rescue. Group lessons start at $99 and private lessons are $150 and each lesson includes two hours of in-water instruction.

Horseback riding
Hawaii’s Big Island has a surprising number of cattle ranches, all thanks to a few cattle who were gifted to King Kamehameha back at the end of the 18th century. When, a few decades later, those cattle had reproduced and began to be a nuisance, King Kamehameha III recruited some Mexican cowboys, which the locals dubbed “paniolos”, to handle the problem. Today, paniolos still work the ranches, many of which welcome guests for daily horseback rides. Na’ alapa Stables at Kahua Ranch is one of these. Located less than an hour north of Kona, the ranch offers 2.5 hour rides for just under $90. The price is well worth it for the beautiful views down to the ocean from the ranch’s 4000-foot elevation.



Snow skiing
Snow skiing…in Hawaii? That’s right. Mauna Kea, an inactive volcano, reaches over 13,000 feet above sea level (and over 30,000 above its base on the floor of the ocean, making it the tallest mountain in the world, technically). The top of the mountain is home to an observatory and is the ideal place to do some serious stargazing all year round. And thanks to the elevation of Mauna Kea, Hawaii actually has snow several months of the year! There’s just one catch to skiing Mauna Kea: there’s no ski resort there. So intrepid adventurers have a friend drive them up the mountain, where they strap on their own skis and snowboards (or just grab a sled…or even a cardboard box) and ski or sled down the mountain. If you want to ski in Mauna Kea, you can sign up with Ski Hawaii, which runs group tours for $250 per person, or rents equipment for as low as $50 per day.