travel photography

JF Ranch Miniature Donkeys

Here at Gemini Connect, we love donkeys, as evidenced by our donkey figurine collection below. As a result, it makes total sense that when we drove by a sign in Mount Vernon for miniature donkeys, we just had to stop and see what that was about. We collected the name of the miniature donkey business, JF Ranch Miniature Donkeys, and made plans to come back a couple weeks later to actually meet the donkeys and the owners. Miniature Donkey

JF Ranch is owned by Julie Jones and Todd Frankenfield. Their path to breeding and raising miniature donkeys began about 15 years ago when they fell in love with a friend's minis. They purchased their first jack (uncastrated male) and jennet (female) miniature donkeys from Meadowood Farms, owned by Loyal McMillian, who is part of the Nordstrom family. Today, Julie and Todd have a full host of miniature donkeys of all sizes, colors, and ages. Their miniature donkeys are bred and sold to others such as our friends at Hoehn Bend Farm .When we stopped by to visit, we found ourselves in a pen full of baby miniature donkeys and were instantly bombarded by them!

What is a miniature donkey?

In contrast to larger donkeys, miniature donkeys have a sweet, loving, and naturally curious disposition. They love attention and will vie for it every chance they get. Julie described the miniature donkeys as being more like oversized dogs, and we couldn't agree more. We spent an easy hour walking around the farm stopping to pet and play with them as Julie went on to recite their names and personality quirks.

We learned that these adorable creatures are a breed of their own and are not bred down from larger donkeys. They are native to the Mediterranean islands of Sicily and Sardinia but have made their way around the world. Currently, there are over 40,000 registered miniature donkeys in the United States. To be considered a miniature donkey, it must be under 36" or less that the shoulder, with the smaller ones being more prized. They also have incredibly long life spans averaging between 25-35 years.

Why have a miniature donkey?

Given their small statures and tame personalities, miniature donkeys typically aren't treated like their larger counterparts. Many people will keep them as pets, but they do need large spaces to roam, so farms are preferable. It's also important that pet owners choose a gelding (a castrated) donkey rather than a jack (uncastrated donkey).  Miniature donkeys can also be trained to barrel race and do other sports and competitions, or they can be used as a pack donkey, as they were originally used in the Mediterranean. No matter what they are used for, one thing is for sure: these animals are incredibly cute and will steal your heart!

Miniature Donkey Photos

Travel Photos to Inspire You to Visit Belize

Are you seeking a trip to a place with picturesque Caribbean beaches and Mayan ruins to explore? Look no further than Belize! Besides its natural beauty and historic attractions, Belize is the only country in Central America where English is the official language. For these reasons among others, thousands of tourists from all over the world flock to this Central American country. Check out the beauty of Belize in the photos below!

Things to do in belize

Things to do in belize

Caye Caulker_Belize travel photography

Caye Caulker_Belize travel photography

Caye Caulker_Belize travel photography

Caye Caulker_Belize travel photography

Caye Caulker_Belize travel photography

Caye Caulker_Belize travel photography

Caye Caulker_Belize travel photography

Caye Caulker_Belize travel photography

Caye Caulker_Belize travel photography

Eastern Washington and Bend, Oregon

Ever since Martin and I purchased our new car in May, we had been dying to break it in on a proper road trip. Our shiny Subaru Impreza Sport was the first brand new car that either of us had ever owned, and we were stoked to take it out on the road. With this in mind, we began devising plans for our annual 4th of July trip. Instead of heading out of state, we decided to stick (somewhat) closer to home and explore more of Washington. After pouring over Google Maps one evening, Martin devised the perfect route. Over the course of 4 days, we would take our new car into uncharted territory for all of us by hitting up Tri-Cities in eastern Washington, and Bend, Oregon. What followed was a pleasantly relaxing trip around the Pacific Northwest.

Travel Mission: Explore the Tri-Cities of Washington and Bend, Oregon.

Eastern Washington and Bend Oregon road trip

Our Trip By the Numbers

  • 4 Days
  • 800 Miles driven
  • $350 Cost per person
  • 16.39 Miles walked
  • 50,594 Steps Walked

Eastern Washington and Bend Oregon road trip

Many First Times

This trip was full of first times for both of us. We were thankful to have two cameras with us to document these moments. Half of our photos were taken with a Canon 6D camera, and the other half with the Olympus Tough, which was great for taking jet skiing and inner tubing.

Eastern Washington and Bend Oregon road trip

The Pacific Northwest had been experiencing a freak heat wave and early summer, with temperatures in Seattle creeping up to and even slightly surpassing 100 degrees Fahrenheit. And this was all prior to July, in a coastal city. Thus, we were expecting record heat when we headed inland, and yet the 100+ degree heat hit us like none other.

Our first day and a half in Tri-Cities saw sweltering temperatures at 110 degrees. It was pretty much inevitable that we would end up touching the chilly, refreshing Columbia River. But I not only wanted to jump into the water, I wanted to jet ski for the first time. Luckily, we found an affordable, friendly local business conducting jet ski rentals at the river's bank, and thus Martin and I ended up jet skiing together, pushing our poor machine its limit of 60mph.

A summary of our first times:

  • visiting Tri-Cities and Bend
  • experiencing 110-degree heat
  • riding on a jet ski
  • inner tubing down a river
  • touching the Columbia and Deschutes Rivers

Tri Cities WA July 2015-7

Tri-Cities, Washington

Our trip began bright and early Friday morning when we drove directly east to the Tri-Cities. A mid-sized metropolitan area east of Seattle, Tri-Cities encompasses the three cities of Kennewick, Pasco, and Richland. All in all, the Tri-Cities make up the fourth-largest metropolitan area of Washington. Tri-Cities have been getting national recognition lately for being among the top 10 best places to raise a family, as well as one of the areas for the best gains in housing value. Thus, Martin and I were curious to visit this part of the state that neither of us had ventured to.

We used Airbnb to find lodging, staying overnight in a guest room on the lower level of what looked like a nearly brand new 4+ bedroom house in West Richland. Seeing this new house from the inside as well as exploring the virtually brand new neighborhood it was located in made it apparent as to why this area appeared to be a middle-class American mecca.

It was ultra suburban, yet still on the newer side, with warmer, less rainy weather than Seattle, as well as decently priced homes. Young families could afford the "American dream" style middle-class houses that at the time seem so out of reach in other parts of the country. Overall, we really enjoyed the Tri-Cities, yet were sad to not be able to fully experience some of its outdoor activities due to extreme heat.

Eastern Washington and Bend Oregon road trip

Falling Head Over Heels in Bend

After leaving the Tri-Cities, we made a beeline for Bend, Oregon. Sadly, many of our desires to indulge in outdoor activities were again squashed by the heat. Staying in an immaculately Southeast Asian designed cabin not far from Sunriver Resort, we fell fast and hard for Bend. As the largest city in Central Oregon, Bend has become a paradise for young adults and lovers of outdoor activities and sports such as fishing, hiking, camping, rock climbing, rafting, skiing, and more. It also has a strong microbrew industry and affordable housing market, making it more than obvious why so many college students and young Millennials flock to Bend.

Despite the fact that we hauled our bicycles to Bend to take advantage of its many biking trails, we never rode once due to heat. Instead, we opted for a "lazy" experience of inner tubing down part of the Deschutes River. We quickly discovered that when it's windy, inner tubing can be hard work.

Smith Rock

Ask any rock climber in the Pacific Northwest where the best place is to go climbing, and Smith Rock is bound to come up. Towards the end of our trip, we took a detour to Smith Rock to finally see the popular national park in person. Pro tip: hike up the Misery Ridge trail to get some epic panoramas. The climb is steep, but the views are breathtaking and the path isn't terribly long.

In Conclusion

Our 4th of July weekend was the perfect opportunity to explore parts of the Pacific Northwest for the first time. We plan to return, perhaps during the winter to experience a whole other world.

Check out some photos from our adventures below.

Weekend in Sedona and the Grand Canyon in Arizona

The Southwestern United States is a region of the country that until recently we had not been very acquainted with. Long fascinated by Wild West tales and history, the Southwest has been an area of intrigue that we finally got to properly explore during a long weekend escape in November 2014. Booked a mere month in advance, we found decent travel and accommodation deals and were able to enjoy our 4 day trip with efficiency and leisure. We wasted no time, packing in a full day of touring from the moment we arrived, speeding up to the Grand Canyon and making it down to Sedona all within a matter of hours. Overall, we left Sedona highly impressed and determined to return again soon.

Weekend to Explore Sedona and see the Grand Canyon.

  • 2,930 Roundtrip miles traveled on this trip.
  • $465.60 Total cost per person when split two ways.
  • 3 Hikes
  • 4 Days Total time of our trip
  • 26.81 miles walked

Things to do in Sedona Arizona

Modern West Photo Shoot

The mission of this trip was to step foot into the American Southwest for the first time and take in the majestic Grand Canyon and red rocks of Sedona. Our theme was heavily influenced by Martin's admiration for Mad Max and desire to simulate some Mad Max-inspired photo shoots in the desert. The night before the trip, Martin visited the barber's shop and shaved his full head of hair into a mohawk; he then donned a black leather jacket and black pants throughout all of our hikes in Sedona for the sake of the photo shoots.

Route and Itinerary

  • Friday (Day 1): Flight from Seattle to Flagstaff. Arrive in Flagstaff and drive to Grand Canyon, then to Sedona.
  • Saturday (Day 2): Day hiking and overnight stay in Sedona.
  • Sunday (Day 3): Day hiking and overnight stay in Sedona.
  • Monday (Day 4): Drive to Flagstaff for lunch and fly back to Seattle.

Sedona Grand Canyon travel

Driving to the Grand Canyon

From the Flagstaff airport, we picked up a small rental car and drove 90 minutes northwest on route 180 into Red Rock Country. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Grand Canyon is a natural landmark that is an easy day trip from Flagstaff or Sedona. It's ideal to spend at least a full day here, to do the historic Watchtower climb and explore the lesser known East Rim Drive. However, if you're like us and don't have much time to spare, an hour or two or exploration is well worth the trip.

The South Rim is one of the most popular viewpoints at the Grand Canyon. Open all year, the area has paved walkways and is accessible by all. Just be careful how close to the edge you get as there are certain areas without railings that can be potentially hazardous.

Grand Canyon Arizona

Traveling to Sedona

After a stop at the Grand Canyon, we ventured 2 hours (about 108 miles) south on US-180E to Sedona. This scenic desert town is very distinct as it is surrounded by red-rock buttes and steep canyon walls. Maybe it's the dust in the air, but Sedona truly feels magical. There are lots of outdoor activities to do here such as hiking, biking, off-roading, or visiting scenic vistas.

Sedona has a moderate climate, so it is great to visit at any time of the year. However, spring and fall are the best and most popular times to visit thanks to the mid-60s to low 80s temperature. Summer tends to be much hotter in the mid-90s, while winter can even bring snow.

Sedona Lodging

We spent our entire stay in the luxurious Diamond Resorts of Sedona Summit, a modern resort tucked away a few miles from the main town. Normally reserved for timeshare guests, we found an amazing deal here for only $119 per night. Our accommodations were a spacious studio with a King sized bed, couch, dining room, and full kitchen. The grounds were incredibly spacious and well-kept with 7 pools and hot tubs on site and a game and entertainment room.

Diamond Resorts Sedona Arizona

Things to Do in Sedona

Go for a hike

There are over 200 trails in the Red Rocks National Park. Easily the most photogenic and popular hikes in the area include Courthouse Rock, Cathedral Rock, Bell Rock, and Bear Mountain.

Drive to Oak Creek Canyon

Take a short drive northeast on Highway 89A for a scenic, unforgettable drive to Oak Creek Canyon. This river gorge lies between Flagstaff and Sedona and is located within the Coconino National Forest. There are several campgrounds and picnic areas in the canyon, as well as many miles of hiking trails. Many fishermen also venture here to fish the 49 miles of creek teeming with several types of trout, bass, and catfish.

Shop for Art and Souvenirs

Sedona boasts 80+ art galleries and boutique stores carrying mystic and New Age products. If you're seeking a rhodochrosite, chrysoprase or other crystals that promote metaphysical well-being, you'll definitely find them in here. The shops and galleries along Highway 89A are a great place to start. Also be sure to hit the Tlaquepaque Arts and Crafts Village, a colonial-style shopping center with plenty of shops.

Things to do in Sedona Arizona

Seek Out Spiritual Vortexes

Speaking of spirituality, Sedona is full of vortexes, where the earth radiates physic energy. Whether you're a believer or a skeptic, taking a guided tour or exploring vortexes on your own is a popular activity. One such vortex also contains another worthy attraction that was built on top: the Chapel of the Holy Cross. This modern chapel looks like something out of a science fiction film and offers spectacular photo opportunities.

Go Stargazing

Sedona doesn't have much of a nightlife, and many of its restaurants and bars close rather early. So take advantage of the city's restrictions on light pollution and turn your eyes towards the heavens and enjoy the constellations.

Rent a bike, ATV, or Tomcar

Off-roading is another popular activity in Sedona, with miles of backcountry roads to traverse. Most companies offer half day or full day vehicle rentals that will send you off the day with a map to choose your own adventure.

Take a Helicopter or Hot Air Ballon Ride

The Sedona valley is stunning from a high viewpoint, which you can reach by hiking or man-made vessel. Helicopter tours run frequently, as do hot air balloon companies. Aim for a sunrise or sunset ride for the most spectacular, photo-worthy experiences.

Over To You

Have you visited Sedona or the Grand Canyon? Share your travel tips below!

Sustainability Profile: Hirabara Farms

Sustainability Profile: Hirabara Farms

Our week-long Big Island trip for the  Hawaii sustainability documentary continues with a stop at Hirabara Farms. This 3-acre parcel sits at 2,900 feet above sea level in Waimea. It is owned by farmers Kurt and Pam Hirabara, and together they produce 13 varieties of baby lettuce and about 2,400 pounds each week exclusively for island chefs.

Improving Business in Belize

Here at Gemini Connect, we're united by a love of traveling far and wide, not necessarily to repeat destinations. However, we break this rule constantly when it comes to two countries in particular: Mexico and Belize. On that note, we made a decision in late 2013 to spend our winter holiday doing a big mission in Mexico and Belize. This would be our second trip to Belize since the first one in 2012. The inspiration was mainly related to our business with Hanna Stables in Belize. Our online booking and payment system had led to huge successes, seeing almost 50% more bookings thanks to the ability to complete the entire transaction online within minutes. However, it had hit a major hurdle in that Western Union was no longer allowing us to transfer funds to our business partner in Belize, so we desperately needed a solution. The trip was intended to meet with banks and other financial institutions to address this problem, as well as check in with other potential business prospects in Belize. As for Mexico...what reasons are there NOT to visit, if only for a heavenly bite of cheap al pastor tacos?

Update: In May 2015, Gemini Connect and Hanna Stables achieved a huge milestone in business. Find out more about how we built a profitable business in Belize with no upfront outside investment.

Mission: Improve our business in Belize. And find cheap, authentic Mexican tacos.

Belize Mexico digital marketing agency

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Beaches seen

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Belize Mexico digital marketing agency

Martin and I first visited Belize together in winter 2012, so this would be our second visit in approximately one year. Intending to use this extended 21 day trip not only for business but pleasure and relaxation as well, we spent the first chunk of the trip in Quintana Roo, Mexico. Initially landing in Cancun, we only spent a brief night in the city before jetting off to Playa del Carmen, a costal resort town that was more our speed in terms of activities and overall culture. We met our friend Arnold there rented a fabulous vacation house in the exclusive neighborhood of Playacar via Airbnb.

After a few days in Playa, we bussed down to the smaller, more remote town of Tulum, staying at a fun hotel, La Zebra. We took an obligatory quick trip to Tulum Mayan ruins, ate amazing fish tacos by the beach, and even briefly ran into Macklemore and fiancee before we packed up and headed further south to Bacalar.

Photos by Gemini Connect

A hidden gem on the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico, the town of Bacalar is centered around the Bacalar Lagoon and its incredible azure blue fresh water. We spent several enchanting nights at Casa Caracol b&b and even took an extremely memorable boat ride and snorkel tour of the lagoon.

Our stay in Bacalar was the last in Mexico before we took a ferry to Belize, entering the country via la isla bonita, San Pedro, or Ambergris Caye. The larger of two main cayes or islands off the coast of Belize, San Pedro is a highly popular tourist destination that in all honesty was a bit...much. Especially when compared to some of the more intimate and special travel experiences we'd had in other smaller, off the map towns in Belize. Worth visiting? Sure. But if you want a more authentic Belizean experience, Caye Caulker or better yet San Ignacio is a better bet.

Belize Mexico digital marketing agency

From San Pedro, we water taxied to the mainland of Belize where from then on the rest of our trip was gratis. We were privately shuttled the 90 minute drive from Belize City to San Ignacio, where it literally felt like we were coming home, especially after a somewhat disappointing experience on San Pedro. We were delighted to return to Nabitunich and see that many improvements had been made to the cottages, and that Hanna Stables was being rebuilt in the form of a brand new barn located closer to the accommodations. During our stay, we did indeed resolve our financial issue (although in a very roundabout way), and even got to experience what most people come to San Ignacio for: an intensive underground caving adventure to Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave.

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Upon my insistence that we end our trip on a beach, we left San Ignacio after about a week and jetted off down the Hummingbird Highway to the coastal town of Placencia. Small, charming and very laid back, Placencia is a fishing village that has become our favorite beach town in Belize. We stayed at the pristine One World Apartment Rentals, experienced the town's famous sidewalk (the narrowest in the world), and had an unforgettable day at sea when we boated off to the dreamy Silk Cayes island where we had the best snorkeling experience of our lives.

Belize Mexico digital marketing agency

We have done such extensive traveling in Belize that we wrote a whole online travel guide of the region on the Hanna Stables website. If you're curious about any of the above-mentioned destinations, check out the Belize travel guide.

Review: Olympus Tough TG-2 Underwater Travel Camera

Can a point and shoot take travel photos that are just as good as DSLR photos? It's a pretty generalized question, but with the rampant amount of progressively awesome point and shoots debuting on the market, I think it's definitely a valid inquiry these days. Before embarking on our 3 week trip to Mexico and Belize, Martin and I decided to bring 4 cameras with us: 2 DSLRs, 1 mirrorless camera, and 1 point and shoot. We ended up using the mirrorless and point and shoot to do a majority of our travel photography shooting, and based on the results below, I'd say that the image quality of these cameras definitely does rival that of DSLRs. The point and shoot we brought was the Olympus Stylus Tough TG-2, a last minute purchase because I wanted a solid underwater camera to shoot still images while snorkeling the world's second largest great barrier reef in Belize. Last year, I'd snorkeled that reef and even held a shark in my arms, but the images I captured with my GoPro Hero 2 were...less than stellar. I remember seething when I saw that another member of the tour had taken way better underwater shots with his point and shoot than my GoPro. When I found out later that he was shooting with the Olympus Tough TG-1, I put the camera on my radar, eventually scooping it up from Amazon.com.

GoPro shark underwater photo

For being a point and shoot, the TG-2 isn't a cheap camera, retailing at $379 USD. It's a pretty solid camera though, with a sharp f/2 lens, the ability to shoot in aperture priority, and rugged features including being shock proof, dust proof, freeze proof, crush proof, and waterproof to a depth of 50 feet (15 feet), all without extra housing. The camera also has a super solid feel, which also means it's a little heavy. I recommend getting this accessory for the TG-2 (or any underwater camera): Foam Float Strap. All of its hatches where you put the SD memory card and connect cables are super watertight. User ratings for this camera are also ultra high, and the TG-2 even made the best of lists for PC Mag and DP Review, to name a few. All in all, the TG-2 is way cheaper than buying Ikelite underwater housing for my 5D Mark III, and more reliable than the popular DiCAPac casing.

Even though I bought the TG-2 with the intent of using it primarily in underwater scenarios, I found myself choosing to pocket the handy TG-2 as my go-to all around travel photography throughout most of the 3 week trip. Having relied heavily on DSLRs to capture most of my images for the past few years, it was a pleasant relief to be able to take a comfortable stroll with just a point and shoot, and not have to worry about leaving my heavy, expensive DSLR unattended while I took a dip in the ocean. Sure, it took some adjusting to shooting with a LCD screen (no viewfinder on the TG-2!), but overall, I had a ton of fun shooting with the TG-2 in daylight. While the TG-2 unfortunately does not come with Wi-Fi, it has a remarkable in-camera GPS system with a fun interface that properly geotagged every single image I shot with it.

Here are a few scenarios that the TG-2 really excels at:

Underwater fish Olympus Tough TG-2

1) Macro shots.

The TG-2 has a regular macro mode, in addition to an underwater macro mode. Both capture details exquisitely well.

2) Food Photography.

There are many shooting modes the TG-2 offers including a food photography mode, which basically allows for macro shots of food and saturates the colors nicely. This mode was great for discretely capturing pics of our meals.

Underwater photo Olympus TG-2

3) Underwater photography as a whole.

The TG-2 comes with several underwater modes to optimize your shooting experience in a different environment, mostly by overcompensating with cool tones. I found that I still had to fix tones and colors quite dramatically in PhotoShop, but overall sharpness and image quality were impressive.

4) Landscapes and Buildings.

When there is enough daylight, the TG-2 was great at landscapes as well as large buildings and interiors, in our case mainly the hotels we stayed at.

Playacar vacation house in Quintana Roo Mexico

5) Casual portraits.

Despite the relatively weak in-camera flash, it still served its purpose when I was trying to illuminate very close objects.

6) Cat mode.

I'm not even kidding, there is a cat mode and a dog mode on this camera, supposedly to make the camera focus on what it deems to be a cat or dog face. This mode excelled when cats were literally in my face, but it flopped when the cat or dog was moving too much.

Olympus Tough TG-2 Cat Mode

While the TG-2 as a whole served as a great travel camera, there were a few scenarios when my DSLR was a clear winner, such as when I took star photos at night, composed some portraits of clients with off camera flash, and when I shot live action images. In other words, when it comes to shooting night shots, the TG-2's results are noticeably grainier, especially at its maximum ISO of 6400. The built in flash on the TG-2 is also incredibly weak, only making an impact when the subject you want to illuminate is within 2 meters of you. And even though the TG-2 comes with a fast f/2 aperture and a focal range of 28-140mm, it couldn't quite match the images my 5D Mark III took of cantering horses.

In sum, the Olympus Tough TG-2 has become my favorite all around pocket camera that I'm more likely to tote along when on a casual stroll or not on assignment. I highly recommend it as a vacation camera for both the casual and professional photographer, depending of course on what kind of photos you aim to take. For more specs and user reviews on this camera, click here.

Check out more images taken exclusively with the TG-2 in the gallery below, with the full gallery available here. No images were photoshopped beyond resizing and watermarking, with the exception of the underwater shots which needed minor color and tone adjustments.

Partnership with Hanna Stables in Belize

To welcome in the New Year, we at Gemini Connect are excited to announce that our latest project has finally launched: a new e-commerce website for Hanna Stables! This family-owned tourism business in Belize is our first international business partner and this is the first of many small projects we will be doing with them.

Tucked away in the lush hills of San Ignacio, Belize is a tropical ranch known collectively as San Lorenzo, including the historic Nabitunich "stone" cottages, and one of the oldest horseback riding establishments in Belize, Hanna Stables. The property has been family owned for three generations and is currently owned by Santiago Juan, an avid horseman who has continued has family tradition of running horseback rides to nearby Mayan ruins on the 45+ horses he has on the premises. Tourists have been flocking to Hanna Stables to experience the nearby Mayan wonder, Xunantunich, on horseback, or in other cases taking a leisurely ride through San Lorenzo and over to the unexcavated Mayan site Actun Kan. Hanna Stables has been doing swimmingly well on its own, as evidenced by its overwhelmingly positive Trip Advisor reviews from delighted guests.

However, the Hanna Stables website was due for a refresh (see the old Hanna Stables website here, as well as its corresponding social media pages and overall image library. Not to mention, the Nabitunich accommodations that used to host couples, families, and backpackers was gearing up for a re-opening, and what better way to attract customers than through online booking? This is where we come in.

In late November 2012, right before Thanksgiving, we two at Gemini Connect traveled down to Belize and spent two weeks on site at Hanna Stables, Nabitunich, and San Lorenzo farm. Not only did we learn more about the establishment and all who lived and worked there, but we captured tons of imagery and information that we could later use to rebuild the HannaStables.com website. We were fortunate enough to also visit many surrounding tourist areas that Hanna Stables plans to include on longer horseback rides for experienced riders.

Those traveling to Belize are probably already familiar with the popular Xunantunich ("Maiden of the Rock") Mayan ruins, but have you heard of Caracol, an even larger ancient Maya archaeological site, or one of the area's oldest Mayan sites Cahal Pech, both in the same town? Both ruins are stunningly well conserved, and unlike some of the more popular ones such as Chichen Itza in Mexico and Tikal in Guatemala, visitors are largely unrestricted and can still climb atop the pyramids in Belize. For those wanting to get away from the more established ruins, Hanna Stables also offers visits to unexcavated ruins such as El Pilar and Actun Kan; traveling to these sites is a true adventure that will make your inner Indiana Jones swoon (spoken from experience!).

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Besides the ruins, we also ventured deep into Belizean culture by visiting Martz Farm, another family run establishment consisting of a real life tree house and cabana deep in the jungles of San Ignacio. We delighted over owner Joe Martinez's authentic demeanor, hearty laugh, and beautiful poetry (he'll spout verses for you on command), and his wife Miriam's delicious home cooked meals. Their three children also keep the premises lively, as well as a host of horses, dogs, and a donkey out back.

We didn't stop with ruins and farms; we also visited the local San Ignacio Farmer's Market, Spanish Lookout to see how the Amish and Mennonites live, the Iguana Conservation Project, Guanacaste National Forest, Mountain Pine Ridge, Río Frío cave and waterfalls. Luckily, time also permitted a couple days relaxing on the beautiful coral Caye Caulker, and a crazy adventure across the border in Guatemala while visiting the famous ruins of Tikal.

WHEW. It was at face value a whirlwind trip that didn't end when we came back to Seattle--that was when the real work began. Weeks were spent sifting through thousands of photos, designing a brand new website, and putting together all of the administration tools we would need to become a full-fledged travel booking agency for Hanna Stables.

Joe Martinez of Martz Farm in Belize.
Joe Martinez of Martz Farm in Belize.

Alas, all things came together, and on 01/01/13, we were proud to announce to the world that HannaStables.com is live. From here on out, we remain in charge of maintaining and upgrading the website as needed, as well as posting Photo of the Day images on Facebook and Twitter, writing weekly blogs, and handling all of the online reservations. We would love if you visited HannaStables.com to see our final product, and also follow the Hanna Stables social networks (click hyperlinks below) as we have only scratched the surface with the stories and photos we have to share.

P.S. If anyone wants to visit Belize, let us know! We are happy to refer you to some great people and help you plan a memorable trip of a lifetime.

BEFORE

Old Hanna Stables website
Old Hanna Stables website

AFTER

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Sustainability Profile: Wailea Agriculture

Those in search of the Garden of Eden need look no further than Wailea Agricultural Group (Wailea Ag). Located in Honomu on the Big Island's Hamakua Coast, Wailea Ag consists of 110 acres of what used to be sugar cane fields for as far as the eye could see. In 1994, partners Michael Crowell and Lesley Hill began working on the land with the idea of establishing a sustainable food forest of sorts. Today, the land is home to lush green land where tons of tropical flowers, plants, fruits, and spices grow in abundance. The cream of the crop is Hawaiian heart of palm, a nutritious and highly prized vegetable harvested from the inner core of palm trees. Wailea Ag supplies many fine dining restaurants and hotels with their abundant hearts of palm and they are currently the largest growers of fresh Hawaiian heart of palm in America averaging an annual harvest of over 15 tons (harvested by hand!).

*This is a multi-part installment as part of the Hawaii Sustainable Agriculture Project. Learn more about the project and the 12 participants here

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Wailea Agricultural Group

Wailea Agriculture began in 1994 as a 110-acre food forest. It is currently America’s largest grower of fresh Hawaiian hearts of palm. Owners Michael Crawford and Leslie Hill spent many years clearing the former sugar cane land in order to make room for their food forest. They practice a variety of sustainable farming techniques. One involves leaving trimmings and fallen leaves and fruits around the original plants to help fertilize them over time. They also use plant cuttings for composting, keep an on-site reservoir of water catchment, and allow local hunting of feral pigs on the property so that hunters can eat or sell the animals.

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Wailea Ag By the Numbers

  • 1994 - Year when Wailea Agriculture began.

  • 110 Acres -  encompassing Wailea Ag.

  • 15 Tons of heart of palm are harvested annually. 

  • 20+ Varieties of edible plants grown.

  • 35+ Years of collective farming experience. 

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Wailea Ag was among our first farm stops during the Big Island culinary tour, and while we were expecting to see tons of palm trees on their property, nothing could prepare us for the extensive tour that Michael took us on. He loaded us up in a motorized golf cart and proceeded to drive us around his 110 acres, stopping every few minutes to get out and show us some of the many other tropical fruits and plants they had growing on the property.

In no particular order (and undoubtedly forgetting many things), here is what we saw growing in full force at Wailea Ag: Fresh peach palm, lychee, rambutans, pulasans, longans, Meyer lemons, keffir limes, durian, dragon fruit, avocado, passion fruit, mangosteen, starfruit, jackfruit, soursop, açai, citron, nutmeg, cloves, allspice, bay leaves, and cinnamon, to name a few.

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Next time you visit Wailea Ag, it's almost guaranteed they'll have another fruit or spice to add to the list. That's pretty darn impressive, especially considering that all 110 acres of land started out as sugar cane fields. By the time we were done with the extensive tour, we also had a box to take home that was full of pretty much every fruit we could get our hands on...and of course a freshly harvest heart of palm!

How does Wailea Ag factor in sustainability? Lucky for them, their cash crop is largely sustainable by nature. Heart of palm is a renewable crop in that new shoots constantly replace the ones that have been harvested, meaning no harm is done to the main crop. There are of course many more sustainability measures in place, but you'll have to wait and see the final video when it's ready! In the meantime, get a mini video tour over at She Grows Food. Also, check out the full photo gallery of the visit here.

Wailea Agricultural Group, Inc. P.O. Box 69 Honomu, Hawaii 96728

www.waileaag.com (808) 963-6360

Sustainability Profile: Hawaii Island Goat Dairy

When you think of the Big Island of Hawaii, I bet that goat cheese is the last thing you'd expect to buy fresh from the islands. However, thanks to Dick Threlfall and his late wife Heather, a small farmstead of goats churns out over 12 kinds of goat milk cheeses including feta, mozzarella, gouda, Colby and much more. As part of a weeklong tour of Hawaii farms, our next stop was Hawaii Island Goat Dairy to learn about dairy goat farming.

*This is a multi-part installment as part of the Hawaii Sustainable Agriculture Project. Learn more about the project and the 12 participants here

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Hawaii Island Goat Dairy by the Numbers

  • 2001 - The year Hawaii Island Goat Dairy was established.
  • 10 - The farm encompasses 10-acres of land.
  • 60 female goats are milked daily.
  • 12 Types of goat cheese produced.
  • 20 male goats on the farm.

The goat farm herd consists of several dairy goat breeds including Saanens, Toggenburgs, and Nubians. Many goats are bred as half Saanen and half Nubian, or "snubian." Pasture lands on the farm include not only grass but also tropical trees such as bamboo, tea leaf, ginger leaf, and macadamia nut trees. The herd of goats graze here frequently.

Hawaii Island Goat Dairy only has four bucks on the premises. But for the sake of increasing production without increasing the adult goats they have to care for, the farm staff uses artificial insemination to produce baby goats. Liquid nitrogen is used to freeze the sperm of mating bucks to facilitate goat reproduction. After they're born, baby goats are raised indoors and fed by hand by staff and volunteers.

Dick Threfall (second from the right) and his family.

Dick Threfall (second from the right) and his family.

Goat Cheese Production

The goat dairy has a fully automated pipeline milking system on site. Made to exclusively cater to goats, the system can milk as many as 60 goats twice a day. The pipeline feeds the goat milk to the cheese room where it is pasteurized and made into two kinds of cheese: natural feta cheese and flavored cheeses. Some of the latter variety include goat cheese flavored with dill, garlic, macadamia basil pesto, or chipotle pepper. After the cheeses are produced, they are stored in a refrigerated cheese room where they are aged. Altogether, the farm produces 200-300 pounds of cheese a week. The products are sent to Hawaii’s top chefs and a few selected local supermarkets. Hawaii Island Goat Dairy cheese products are only sold in local Hawaii markets; no sales are available on the farm or online.

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Hawaii Island Goat Dairy and Sustainability

To do its part and involve the community, the goat dairy offers an on-site volunteer internship program that offers room and board in exchange for work on the dairy. Dick Treyfall also shares his thoughts on Hawaii becoming a more agriculturally sustainable state: “It’s a lot of work, but in the long run it’s worth it because there may come a time where we have to be sustainable. We’ll run out of food, but we have the ability to produce all of the food we ever need here. The sustainability move is tremendous now; it’s picking up and getting better all of the time. Happy healthy goats give good milk which makes great cheese.”

Sustainability Profile: Wow Farm

Tricia Hodson first inherited the plot of homestead land from her father back in 1989. She had a background in education and her husband Mike had spent 27 years working with the Hawaii Police Department. Neither of them knew anything about farming, but they had the vision of building a family business by growing and selling organic tomatoes. Initially, the Hodsons were growing tomatoes in greenhouses for personal consumption. Then they entered the local farmer’s market scene where their tomatoes earned their well-deserved “wow” name and fame. Their first greenhouse appeared on the property in 2006; today, their 10-acre property a holds over 40 greenhouses that produce between 5,000-10,000 pounds of organic tomatoes a week.

Why grow tomatoes? Mike says they are among the hardest crops to grow, and he wanted a challenge. A challenge did he receive, and it took lots of trial and error to come up with an effective way to cultivate an agricultural program that could be sustainable.

*This is a multi-part installment as part of the Hawaii Sustainable Agriculture Project. Learn more about the project and the 12 participants here

Mike and Tricia Hodson of Wow tomato farms on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Mike and Tricia Hodson of Wow tomato farms on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Wow Hodson Family Farms

Six years ago, Mike and Tricia Hodson were sitting on a 10-acre lot of Hawaii homestead agriculture land in Waimea with nothing more than a house and a dream board of ideas. Today, that land is now home to Wow Hodson Family Farms, one of the most successful organic tomato farms on Hawaii's Big Island. The story of how Mike and Tricia got to where they are today is an inspiring example of entrepreneurial and educational pursuits.

Address: 64-793 Ainahua Alanui Kamuela, Hawai'i, Hawaii 96743 (808) 887-0969 http://www.wowfarms.com/

By the Numbers

  • 10 Acres - Wow Hudson Family Farm consists of 10 acres of land. 

  • 40 - The number of greenhouses on the farmlands.

  • 2006 - The year the first greenhouse appeared on the farm. 

  • Thousands of pounds of tomatoes produced by the farm weekly. 

  • 14 Other families benefiting from the Hodson's farming education. [/tw-column]

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Today, Mike's method of growing tomatoes requires a minimal amount of output, and it reaps a ton of benefits. Among his inventive growing techniques includes the use of plastic flooring in his greenhouses that eliminates the need to weed his plants, an act which he says can take up 75% of a farmer's labor. The plastic flooring also makes it easy to swiftly sweep up the dead tomato leaves when they fall.

Mike's neat row of tomato plants in his greenhouse are also part of his efficiency plan. When it comes time to pollinate his plants, all he has to do is go to one end of the row and give his plants a few hard shakes. The tomatoes take care of the rest of the work, as they are self-pollinating plants.

What is the importance of sustainability in his farming practices? Well Mike is quick to point out that sustainability can have multiple meanings. It can mean financial freedom from the burden of debts, which he has practiced by paying for all of his farming equipment, supplies, and land without the need to borrow credit.

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Malama 'aina means to care for and nurture the land so it can give back all we need to sustain life for ourselves and our future generations.

An ahupua'a is an ancient concept of resource use and management based on families living in a division of land that connects the mountains to the reefs and the sea." - Puanani Rogers, Team Leader for the Ho`okipa Network

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Sustainability can also mean malama 'aina (take care of the land) by using organic farming techniques that will keep the land healthy, which is what Wow Farms does in their practices. Although they aren't certified organic (they don't see the need to pay for a stamp of certification), Wow Farms is a fully organic farm that chooses to sell itself as an "all natural" farm.

Most importantly, however, is the definition of sustainability that applies to keeping a community of people happy and fed with healthy, wholesome food. Wow Farm fulfills this mission by helping 14 other nearby homestead families learn to grow their own food using the Hudson's greenhouses and growing techniques. Mike points out that the entire state of Hawaii only produces about 7% of the food that we consume; if the ships and suppliers were to stop bringing in food from outside sources, the islands will starve after a week. An isolated island can't eternally rely on outside providers, especially with the population booming the way it is.

Wow Farm tomatoes varieties include heirlooms, red and orange beefsteaks, and Romas. The tomatoes are of such pristine quality that they are in high demand by the chefs at many high end Hawaii resorts including the Hilton Waikoloa, Four Seasons Hualālai, and Mauna Lani Bay Resort. Consumers can also find Wow Farm tomatoes in select grocery stores. Yes, they're priced higher than the average tomato, but they are organic, locally grown, and supremely tasty--not to mention, they have a very long shelf life.

Sustainability Profile: Hamakua Springs Country Farms

Richard Ha and his family own a 600 acre farm on the Big Island in Hamakua Springs. Here, they along with 70 full-time employees practice biodiversity by producing a variety of bananas, tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, watercress, avocado, and citrus. All of the fruits and vegetables are produced using sustainably viable practices. For example, instead of spraying banana plants with pesticides, predatory wasps are allowed to nest inside of the banana groves to cut down on the amount of caterpillars that try to eat the fruit. Grass is allowed to grow around the roots of the banana trees to create a sponge-like effect that helps the plant absorb more water and fertilizer. When banana fruits begin to ripen, they are wrapped in pesticide-free plastic to protect them against pests.

421 Lama Street Hilo, Hawaii (808) 981-0805 www.hamakuasprings.com

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By the Numbers

  • 600 Acres of Hamakua Springs Farmland.
  • 70 Full-time workers on the farm.
  • 150 Acres of land leased to other farmers.
  • 2004 - Year when Hamakua Springs expanded its crop offerings.
  • 2 Types of bananas are grown in Hamakua Springs Farms.

Even the way the farm stays powered is sustainable by way of a flume system that supplies water to a newly built on-site generator for electricity. Rain water is captured on a rooftop and is stored in a reservoir for cooling and washing produce as well as powering a hydroponic system. Hydroponic farming is preferred since it ensures protection against pests and fungal growth while also reducing reliance on labor, land, and heavy machinery. Using hydroelectricity and solar power, the farm strives to soon be completely off the grid.

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Hamakua Springs further encourages sustainability in leading by example and helping the rest of their community have access to farming. Currently they lease 150 acres to local farmers so that they too are able to grow their own crops for consumption and commerce. The farm is also open to new technology for farming including the possible use of drones to detect agricultural problems.

But at the end of the day, Richard Ha knows that the best form of sustainable farming comes in the awareness and activity from his customers. He encourages all Hawaii residents to buy local not only to support local farmers, but to ensure everyone the freshest, most natural products.

Produce from Hamakua Springs is available at most Hawaii-based supermarkets including Safeway, Costco, KTA Superstores, and Star Market; select produce is also exported internationally and to the mainland USA.

*This is a multi-part installment as part of the Hawaii Sustainable Agriculture Project. Learn more about the project and the 12 participants here

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Sustainability Profile: Aikane Plantation Coffee Company

Kona coffee reigns supreme as Hawaii's most popular coffee. But (arguably) superior to Kona coffee is that which comes from the neighboring area of Ka'u. Valued for its smooth and delicate flavor and low acidity, Ka'u coffee is considered on the top coffees of the world and is even available as a Starbucks Reserve brew. One talented Hawaii coffee farm known for its Ka'u coffee is Aikane Coffee Plantation. You'll know their brand once you see their iconic purple packaging.

Located in the Ka'u region of Hawaii (bordering Kona), Aikane Coffee Plantation's first coffee trees were planted by owner Meryl Becker's great-grandfather in 1894 when he settled in the area to work in the sugar industry. In fact, many of the plantation’s current coffee trees are descendants of those first trees. Located far away from other coffee farms, there is little chance of cross-pollination. As a result, Aikane coffee remains a truly authentic old Hawaiian coffee.

Aikane Coffee Plantation Hawaii
Aikane Coffee Plantation Hawaii

By the Numbers

  • 1894 - Year when Aikane's first coffee tree was planted. 

  • 2 How many seeds are in one coffee berry. 

  • 8% Amount of coffee berries that have only 1 seed (peaberries). 

  • 70+ How many countries produce coffee. 

  • 15th Century - when coffee was first introduced. 

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The coffee cherries are handpicked, washed, and dried on site. They are roasted and packaged in eye-catching royal purple bags as whole beans or as ground coffee. A brewed cup of Aikane coffee is smooth and rich, lacking a strong acidic aftertaste. The coffee production process is truly green. No pesticides or chemicals are ever used, macadamia nut shells and coffee pulp are used as mulch, grazing sheep are used to keep the grass growth down, a catchment system catches rainwater, and electric solar panels supply all of the energy. The farm is also home to horses and donkeys and it is a visitation destination for tour groups. Aikane Plantation coffee is a premium product in the Japanese market, but it can be found in high-end restaurants in Hawaii as well as Shirokiya, Bishop Museum, Blue Hawaii Lifestyles, military commissaries, and select farmer’s markets.

*This is a multi-part installment as part of the Hawaii Sustainable Agriculture Project. Learn more about the project and the 12 participants here

Sustainability Profile: Abalone and Natural Energy

The state of Hawaii operates NELHA, an innovative science and technology park located in Kona. It consists of 87-acres of land and 3,200-acres of water. Parcels of the land are leased to national and international businesses that cultivate abalone, ocean fish, lobsters, shrimp, sea horses, algae, alternative energy sources, and bottled water. NELHA was the site of the first successful Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC) plant in the world. This remarkable technique uses the difference between deep ocean water and warm surface water to create electrical power. One of the many uses of OTEC is to stimulate growing conditions for ocean plants and animals so that they may be cultivated on land.

NELHA By the Numbers

  • 87 Acres of land encompassing NELHA. 
  • 40 Enterprises located on NELHA property. 
  • 3,000 Feet deep: how far deep ocean water is extracted from. 
  • 1974 The year when NELHA's HOST Park was created. 
  • 3,200 Acres of water on NELHA property. 
Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii
Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii

 

Big Island Abalone Corporation

One of the businesses leasing 10-acres of land from NELHA is the Big Island Abalone Company. They produce over 100,000 pounds of abalone each year for consumption in Hawaii, on the mainland, and in Asia. The objective of the farm is to stimulate the positive elements of the natural ocean environment in which abalone can flourish by harnessing a constant flow of cool, pure, nutrient rich seawater pumped from 3,000 feet deep in the ocean. The farm also cultivates a blend of seaweed on site to serve as food for the abalone; the seaweed heavily influences the taste, color, texture, and appearance of the abalone.

The abalone business is thriving in Kona because science and technology are able to utilize a natural, clean and renewable resource: the Pacific Ocean. 

Kona Hawaii Abalone

Kona Hawaii Abalone

*This is a multi-part installment as part of the Hawaii Sustainable Agriculture Project. Learn more about the project and the 12 participants here