Me and my star outside Pinnacle Foods, home of Duncan Hines

My Awesome Trip to Duncan Hines

Me and my star outside Pinnacle Foods, home of Duncan Hines
Me and my star outside Pinnacle Foods, home of Duncan Hines

How do we travel on $20 a day? Well, mostly we don’t. Every time it seems we manage to save up any money,we end up having to give it to something decidedly uncool like immigration, the IRS, or the tire shop. The only way to get off my island is to get someone else to pay for it. Mostly, you have to get really really lucky.

I mentioned before that I won a trip to the Duncan Hines Test Kitchens in Parsippany, New Jersey. After months of waiting and anticipating it finally happened. 

Pre-flight margarita
Pre-flight margarita

I flew out on Thursday evening and arrived Friday around 11:00. I do not sleep well on planes, so I was exhausted and starving when I arrived. The first thing on my agenda was a nap and a shower in my totally swanky hotel room at the Sheraton.

My fancy hotel room
My fancy hotel room

After I brought myself roughly back to life, I forced myself to socialize with strangers, which I’m awful at, by heading down to the hospitality suite. Luckily, there was food, sandwiches and a gorgeous cheese plate, and I even managed to sneak in a glass of wine. It was a bit awkward at first, but people from my tribe eventually began to show up, and I saw that I might actually be speaking the same language as some of the other lucky ladies attending this event.

After putting on a fun dress, I headed down to one of the hotel’s banquet rooms for cocktails, then dinner. I was interviewed by the videographer and was brilliant and charming for the first take, and then a blithering idiot when they said I had to do it again. I guess I won’t be getting my own TV show any time soon.

Winning Desserts
Winning Desserts

Dinner was pretty good, but the best part was dessert. We got to try all the desserts from the winners of the contest. My favorite was the mocha gooey bottom bars from my new friend, Genell. They were the perfect amount of gooey. 

Beth is the coolest. I am a weirdo.
Beth is the coolest. I am a weirdo.

I also got to sit next to Beth from Wilton at dinner. She’s a pastry chef, cake decorator, winner of Cupcake Wars, and an all around super awesome human. It was amazing to get to meet so many people working in the industry and just talk to them like it was no big deal.

Saturday morning, jet lag punched me in the face and made a complete fool of me. I overslept and missed the bus. What an idiot! I only ended up being about 15 minutes late, but it was pretty embarrassing. In my defense, it was 3 am Hawaii time. I was a bit disoriented.

We toured the test kitchens, watched a cake decorating demo from Beth, got to try some top secret products under development, and ate lunch. It was amazing and exhausting, but the fun was just beginning. 

Learning great things from Chef Joe
Learning great things from Chef Joe

We spent the entire afternoon in a four hour demo from Chef Joe, the pastry chef for Duncan Hines. He showed us one great technique after another. His energy was limitless. This is a guy who loves his job.

Three desserts for one dinner
Three desserts for one dinner

Dinner was pretty great. I especially loved the butternut squash. Crazy, right? But of course, this was a baking event so it was all about dessert. Each and every one was amazing. Chef Joe went all out for us. I can’t wait to try some of the techniques and recipes I learned and share them with you.

Some of the participants also did a little gifts exchange back at the hotel. This was really fun. We all had to bring a gift representing our home state. I brought toffee mac nuts, Hawaiian salt, Kona coffee, and lilikoi pancake mix, all wrapped lau lau style in a sarong. I can’t believe how popular it was. It got stolen three times. I received a box of herbal teal, some nut butters, a huge bar of chocolate, and an awesome fridge magnet from my new and way rad friend, Becky, who lives in Colorado.

Those of us who stayed up late got treated to another visit by Chef Joe and some of the staff from Duncan Hines. I can’t believe how friendly everyone there was. I guess I’d be pretty happy if I got to make cake every day at work. Their generosity of spirit was so refreshing.

Duncan Hines and Wilton swag
Duncan Hines and Wilton swag

This was an unforgettable experience. I don’t get to travel much, and I certainly don’t think I’ll ever have a chance to attend another event like this. The horrible jet lag was totally worth it. I can’t believe how lucky I was to get to meet so many wonderful bakers. In just two days, I feel like I made some awesome new friends, and if you know me, you know that’s saying a lot, since I’m an awkward weirdo nerd. I will never forget this experience, and I can’t wait to share some of the things I learned with you.

 Mahalo Duncan Hines! You made me feel like part of your ohana.

P.S. Duncan Hines paid for my trip, but I was there as a giveaway winner. I was under no obligation to write this post. They’re just super amazing, and I had to tell you about it. 🙂

Awesome Homemade Cookies
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Manoa Falls Trail

Manoa Falls2

Whenever we have a long weekend, I always feel like I should use one of those days to get out in nature. I’m not sure what compels me, but it just seems right. Manoa Falls is beautiful, and it’s so easy to find.

Manoa Falls1

When people come to visit my island, Oahu, they usually only think about our beautiful beaches. A lot of people never even make it out of Waikiki. But if you just turn your back on the ocean for a moment (not while you’re standing too close, obviously) you can look up and see that we also have some pretty spectacular mountains. I never get tired of looking at them. Every day, it surprises me how beautiful they are.

Manoa Falls3

Pretty much straight up from Waikiki is the Manoa Valley, and a short hike that leads to a beautiful waterfall. Depending on conditions, this trail is quite easy. It’s not too steep, and it’s plenty wide. No scrambling over boulders or anything. Just a lovely walk through an amazing jungle. However, if it’s been raining, and up in the mountains, there’s a good chance that it has, the trail can become very slippery. This complicates things a bit. 

Manoa Falls4

I recommend wearing trainers or hiking shoes. This is not the time for sandals. Your shoes will get muddy. Also, probably not the best time to wear that pretty white linen skirt. I’d also probably not bring your baby. I’ve seen people do it, and I’m sure everything was fine. But I’ve also seen people slip and fall. It just makes me nervous. Use your brain. You know what to do.

Manoa Falls5

If you’re here on vacation, you’ll see people in Waikiki trying to sell you commercial tours to Manoa Falls. If you like throwing your money away, be my guest. But if you’ve rented a car, or moped, it’s very easy to drive to. If you park on the street just below the entrance, you don’t even have to pay the five dollars to park. If you don’t have your own wheels, just take the bus. It goes right up near the trail head, and a bus ride is $2.50. It’s much better than sitting on a stuffy tour bus.

Manoa Falls6

As for the experience itself, if you’ve never been in a proper jungle, you’re going to love this. There are the most wonderful plants and trees. You’ll want to stop and take photos about every thirty seconds. Or I did. Maybe I’m just weird. When you reach the falls at the end, you’ll see signs telling you not to climb out onto the rocks. I urge you to obey, even though you’ll likely see plenty of people who don’t. There have been rock falls in this area, and the more times people head off the trail, the more erosion is caused. Also, there is likely leptosperosis in the water. It can be nasty.

Manoa Falls7

If you’re an uberhiker, you can continue up another trail once you reach the falls. It keeps winding back into the mountains. I’m usually too hungry at this point to keep going, but I’ve always wanted to check it out. 

Manoa Falls8

One more tip. Remember those commercial tours I told you about? They’re only allowed on weekdays. It may sound counterintuitive, but it’s probably quieter on the weekends. Oh, and don’t forget your bug spray!

Manoa Falls9

Manoa Falls is the perfect opportunity to see the other side of Oahu. The beach is fun, but the mountains are just breathtaking. It’s a relatively simple hike that’s easily accessible. It’s a great place to start for exploring. Be respectful of the aina, or land, and enjoy it’s beauty.

Makapu'u Tide Pools

Makapu’u Tide Pools

Makapu'u Tide Pools

Living on a beautiful tropical island sometimes has its trade offs. Everything is so expensive. Living from paycheck to paycheck often leaves practically nothing leftover for entertainment. Especially when you love to eat as much as I do. 

The bright side is that this island is full of unbelievable natural beauty, most of which you can explore for free. Recently, we visited the tide pools at Makapu’u, and they took my breath away.

Makapu'u Trail

The Makapu’u Point Lighthouse Trail is on the windward side of Oahu near Sea Life Park. There’s an easy but steep trail that leads to a lighthouse with stunning, expansive ocean views. It’s a great spot for whale watching in the winter months. You can also veer off to the right, if the beach is more you style. On this day, however, we were headed for the tide pools.


About halfway up the trail there’s a sign about whale watching. This is where you leave the nice wide paved path and hike down the side of a lava rock cliff. It’s a bit challenging, especially if you’re out of shape like me. There are loose rocks and several places where you have to jump down to the next level. Proper footwear is a definite bonus. I wouldn’t recommend this trail for small children.

Blow hole near tide pools

Also be sure to check the surf report before going out. Large waves can rush over the rocks into the tide pools creating dangerous conditions. Even strong swimmers can get swept away. I’m not saying you have to be a scaredy baby, just respect the ocean. It’s a powerful force.

Once you make it down, you’ll see several pools with clear water and adorable colorful fish. You can wade right in with the fish, but remember, you’re in their home. If you have an underwater camera, this would be a fantastic time to use it. The fish will swim right past you.


The ocean was putting on a pretty great show for us when we were out there. The waves crashing against the rocks, and the sound of the ocean churning beneath the blow holes and in the lava tubes is powerful. Just be careful and don’t turn your back on it.


Be sure to bring plenty of sunscreen and water. There’s no shade down there, and once you hike down, you have to get back up. There are chalk arrows on the rocks to guide you on the safest path. There are also no restrooms out here, so…. Well, just be prepared.


I love the opportunity to explore new and beautiful places so near my home. A sandwich, some water, and a camera are all you really need to enjoy an awesome day in the natural world.

Dill Potato Salad by Awesome on 20
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