I might eventually write a piece on the many terrifying obstacles to smooth driving the Big Island presents, but I’m still too traumatized to attempt it. Suffice it to say I was relieved every time we passed something we wanted to photograph, because it was a chance to pull over and release my death grip on the steering wheel. Of course, there were a million such photo opportunities, because the Big Island is 4,028 square miles of visual perfection.
We were reluctant to leave Puna; the house was so lovely, and we hadn’t been to the hippie spa yet, or gone to one of the Wednesday night beach parties, or ventured onto the nude beach nearby. But we packed up on Sunday and drove through the drizzle to the Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Factory. The factory is set three miles off the main road, and you drive through groves of nut trees dotted with Burma Shave-style signs to get there. After careful deliberation, we each chose a can of nuts to buy, and while the white chocolate covered nuts were good, the butter candy ones were deemed best after an extensive taste test later that evening. The factory building has a wall of windows on one side of it, so you can walk along and look inside as the nuts get sorted by machine and by hand, and then salted, and then packed up. We saw Mauna Loa nuts sold everywhere we went in Hawaii, so it was neat to see where they all start out.
We drove through Hilo and up the coast, and this part of the drive was tough not so much for the road conditions as for the stunning valley views we passed every few minutes. I had to will myself to look at the road and not the deep crevasses of green spilling into the blue sea below. I put Heather on photo duty, and she made a valiant effort to get in-focus pictures while going 50 miles per hour.
After a while, we passed into another ecosystem, a grassy area called Hamakua that’s been used for farming for centuries. We were passing into the region of the kings of Hawaii. Somehow, the hills got even bigger, and we passed fields of cows and horses as we climbed them. We eventually reached the Waipio lookout. I’d thought about hiking down into the valley, but it was even steeper than I’d expected, and there were several signs asking visitors to consider not descending, as this was a sacred area. So instead I stared out into the sliver of valley visible from the lookout, and saw why you’d establish this as the seat of your kingdom.
We made a stop at a local souvenir shop, where Heather attempted to buy one of everything (lucky for her friends back home!), and then we drove on into yet another ecosystem. It didn’t take very long for us to pass out of lush farmland and waterfall central into a desert. I actually shook my head in amazement when I realized we were looking at something very similar to the American Southwest, mere minutes after seeing the Heartland.
Kona coffee comes from this side of the island, although I’m not sure where in this dry place they grow it. We didn’t see evidence of coffee plantations, but we saw many signs of other people who’d driven through here before us. The ground was all a dark gray, and there were lots of little white rocks scattered around. People gathered them up and spelled out their names, big hearts, little messages to photograph and send back home. We’re so fond of leaving our mark.
Kailua Kona is a fun little beach town, and as we went down the main drag, we checked out the shops and restaurants to see where we might want to visit the next day. Monday morning, we went snorkeling, which you can read about here. It was so fun, and mesmerizing; it’s easy to spend hours at it without realizing how much time has passed.
That evening we strolled across the street to Huggo’s on the Rocks, a beachfront bar, and had cocktails and dinner. A couple guys played classic rock covers on acoustic guitars as the sun set, and Heather and I toasted each other with our pina coladas and mai tais. Later on, some girls from a nearby dance school did a little hula show, much to our delight.
On Tuesday, we took it easy after snorkeling, so that we’d be all ready for our big night out. We’d ponied up the money for a luau, and at 4:30pm we lined up on the King Kamehameha Kona Beach Hotel lawn with about a hundred other smiling tourists. We bought leis—a flower one for me and a kona nut for Heather—and then wandered to the pre-dinner area. Heather got some tough tattoos, and I took a hula lesson. Everyone was laughing and scooping up more mai tais from the punch bowl, so it was a relaxed and happy group that sat down to dinner. Heather immediately made friends with the whole table, of course, so that was fun. We chatted with our neighbors as we ate poi, ono (which was ‘ono!), Hawaiian sweet potatoes, pork from the imu, and fruit.
The entertainment featured the same 10 or so dancers going through various Polynesian styles of dance, while a live band played to the side. We had good seats right in the center, so we could fully appreciate the athletic jumping, shaking, stomping, and twirling of dances from Hawaii, Tahiti, Samoa, Fiji, and New Zealand. Apparently it’s normal to end with a fire dance. Since I’ve never been to a luau before, I don’t know what’s normal, but the fire dance was pretty great, and what a way to finish. Heather and I went back to the condo fully satisfied with our immersion in tourist country.
The next morning we drove back across the island to Hilo and caught a plane to Honolulu, for the last part of our vacation together. Tune in soon to read about Pearl Harbor and island living!
Before arriving at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, I thought the park’s name was misspelled. Surely they meant volcano, singular? But as we learned in Part 1, the island of Hawaii is made up of five volcanoes—one is extinct, one is dormant, and three are active. “Active” apparently means it’s erupted in the last 200 years, which seems like a long time to sit around doing nothing while still getting credit for being active, but who I am I to quibble logic with a force of nature.
One of the volcanoes is serious about its active status, though. Kilauea has erupted in the last 20 years (taking out most of the town of Kalapana), and now a part of it is constantly erupting, spewing smoke into the air in the Halemaʻumaʻu crater. You can take a helicopter ride to see lava flowing, or you can do a night walk to try and spot lava as it enters the ocean. These were both expensive options, and heavily dependent on the mood of the weather, so Heather and I skipped them. Instead, we paid our $10 national park entrance fee and got more than our money’s worth with a full day of natural wonders.
We had good luck from the start—a ranger-led tour started just 15 minutes after we arrived at the visitor center. So we joined up and learned about various plants on the walk out to Waldron Ledge. We were struck by the alarming statistic that 90% of the island’s flora and fauna is not indigenous, and we learned about the efforts to contain the spread of some of the more pernicious plants. Our guide pointed out two plants that look very similar; one is an invasive, and one is a rare native. This is why visitors are not encouraged to weed out any invasives on their own time. More likely than not, they’d pick out the wrong plant. The park does sponsor days where volunteers weed out invasives under the watchful eye of a park ranger, though, so you can contribute to the effort. (This is what my friend Matthew does in the northern part of Michigan’s lower peninsula—invasives are found all over the world.)
The path out to Waldron Ledge is actually the old road that used to circumnavigate the volcano. The park realized that the road was in a dangerous spot, and they built the current road, which takes a wider path. Sure enough, in 1983, the old road buckled in an eruption and much of it crumbled away into the giant mouth of the volcano. Now it’s overgrown with plants and part of it intersects with the path out to the lookout.
Once we were there, we saw just how vast the volcano is. It goes on for miles, and at the other end is the a vent, huffing and puffing into the air while the crater around it sits silent and nearly barren. I say nearly because plants are unstoppable; they will grow anywhere. There are plants dotting the floor of the crater, pushing their way up through the volcanic rubble and stubbornly holding on in that alien landscape. Those plants impressed me almost as much as the crater they’re growing in, actually.
We drove over to the vent and gazed at it while munching on lunch. The Jaggar Museum there has a few good displays on the volcanoes, and also a seimograph that draws a shaky zig zag if you jump up and down near it. After lunch, we went for facials at the steam vents. These aren’t sulfuric vents, so there was no smell of rotten eggs, just warm water soaking our faces and fogging up our glasses.
Next we went to the lava tube. It sounds like an amusement park ride, doesn’t it? “Shoot down the lava tube from 50 feet off the ground! You’ll be positively glowing from all the excitement!” It wasn’t quite like that, but it was pretty cool. A lava tube is formed by lava running down a hill, and part of it cooling into rock before the rest of it does, so that lava flows through the hardened lava rock. What’s left behind is a cave made up of lava, tunneling through the tropical plants.
After walking through the lava tube, we got back in the car and went off to see more evidence of what these volcanoes can do. We drove along the Chain of Craters Road, a phrase both literally descriptive and wonderfully poetic. I’m not sure exactly how many craters are found along this road, but we saw many. Most of them look like rock quarries that have been used up and abandoned—uniformly gray rock, a steep wall down to the bottom of a pit, empty of life and machinery. Soon enough, we were in sight of the ocean, and the views got more dramatic from there. We took hairpin turns down the side of the mountain, losing elevation rapidly, and ended up on an eerie plain of misshapen volcanic rock stretching out to sea.
At the end of the road, you hop out and you can walk farther down the road to see what Kalapana might have looked like, or go across the road and scramble down a few rocks to the cliff’s edge. Here, you can see where the rocks cut off abruptly into space, dropping down in a cliff to the ocean. Holei Sea Arch connects a little bridge to nowhere, and the surf crashes underneath it.
After wending our way back up that mountain and through the chain of craters, we went to Volcano Village for a little rest. We treated ourselves to a milkshake and fries at the Lava Rock Café (haha, yes), and Heather caught glimpses of football games on the TV while I retraced our route on the national park map.
It was raining when we arrived back at the Jaggar Museum but we were prepared. I zipped up my raincoat and Heather donned her yellow poncho, and we waited for the sun to set. Lots of other people were there for the same thing, so we chatted with a couple from California and watched the smoke rising from the vent grow brighter as the sky grew darker.
At first, Heather wanted to know how much longer we needed to stay, and to be fair, it was cold and rainy. But after a while, she wasn’t asking that anymore, because she, like the rest of us, was mesmerized by the glow. This was one of my favorite parts of our time in Hawaii, watching the glow of an active volcano as it breathed smoke and fire into the night air.
Finally, we left the park about 10 hours after we’d first arrived, and headed back to our rental house, which was an hour and a half away. It was a scary drive, in the near total dark and at times torrential rain, but we made it back safely, and that night I slept with visions of secret caves and lava glowing in my head.
When my sister Heather and I started planning this trip, we drew up a list of things we wanted to do in Hawaii: visit a volcano, swim at Waikiki Beach, go to a luau, and snorkel. But that last one actually made me a bit nervous. I love swimming and could easily spend all day frolicking in the water, but that’s all under the power of my own breath. Breathing while under water is just unnatural. I can’t see myself ever scuba diving, but I thought maybe I could handle snorkeling, seeing as how it’s much easier to surface if necessary.
Turns out snorkeling is really easy. (You probably already knew that, but see how I’m growing and learning on this trip?) You just put the mask on, tip your head down, and breathe. We took the advice of my travel book and asked for prescription goggles at the rental place, which ensured that we saw fish instead of brightly colored blobs once we got in the water.
We drove five miles south of the center of Kailua-Kona to Kahalu’u Beach Park and joined the many other snorkelers. At first we tried putting the flippers on and clown-shoeing into the water, but that was comically difficult, and we noticed other people were walking into the water barefoot and putting flippers on once a little further in. This was a much better plan.
And then, the fish! For two hours, we paddled around staring at fish, giving each other the thumb’s-up, and taking photos with Heather’s underwater camera. Yep, there are pictures. They’re mostly cloudy, since the area we were in on the first day of snorkeling was full of people kicking up sand, and we ran out of batteries on the second day, when we were in a quieter, clearer area. They’re still pretty cool, though. Enjoy!
Aloha, dearest fellow travelers! I’m sitting on wicker furniture in an airy open-plan house on the island of Hawaii. The ocean surf was audible earlier, but night has fallen and the chirruping of the coqui frogs has taken over. Heather has fallen asleep and I’m typing up this short post before going to bed myself. We have an early morning tomorrow, heading to the tide pools up the coast before they get too crowded.
Today was our fourth day in Hawaii, and I think I’m just starting to believe that I’m here. I still can’t believe I’ve actually started my trip–I expect landing in Sydney might help with that–but I can believe that my sister and I are really in paradise. I mean, we’ve swum in the Pacific, sunbathed on Waikiki, hiked to a waterfall, and seen dozens of plants and birds we’ve never seen before. Definitely not in Kansas, etc.
More to come as the trip continues! For now, have a slideshow to tide you over.
Now that I’ve included Hawaii on my itinerary, I should do a little research into figuring out where to go and what to see. I told Heather (my sister and traveling companion on this leg of the trip) that we’re flying straight to paradise. But what do you do in paradise? Other than beaches. Lots of them.
Take a hike
Heath and I aren’t the heartiest of hikers, but we are both excited to explore the many natural wonders of the islands. The Akaka Falls on the Big Island sound beautiful, and at less than half a mile, definitely a hike we can handle. On Oahu, the ocean views on the (paved, mile-long) Makapu‘u Point Lighthouse Trail sound enticing. Some other hikes found on this site look good, too.
Walk into a volcano
Yes. You can walk into the Kilauea and Mauna Loa volcanoes on the Big Island. These are active volcanoes, which means rising steam, flowing lava, and the ever-present (if slight) possibility of eruptions. Exciting stuff. It’d be cool to see the lava flowing at night, but everything seems to indicate that you have to hike in pretty far, over rocky terrain, to do that, which sounds outside the range of possibility for Heather and me. So we’ll probably do one of the easy or moderate walks mentioned here.
Such a Seussian word, snorkel, like the Snorkels of Pampozzle wear sneeds (a sneed being, as we all know, a thing that most everyone needs). Anyway, it looks like you can rent snorkel gear from just about everywhere, or even buy it if you’re going to be there for more than a week. You can go out and find fish on your own, or you can join a tour and they’ll take you out on a boat to their favorite snorkeling spots. Either way sounds okay to me. Now how do I wear my glasses under those goggles?
Attend a luau
I’m a little wary of luaus for tourists; they seem to be an overpriced show of razzmatazz. (After all, you can see free hula shows elsewhere, like at the Volcano Art Center on the Big Island.) But Heather is excited about the idea, and I’m not trying to pretend that I don’t like a good show. (See how accommodating I am of my traveling partner’s needs? Join me on the trip and this could be you!) Also, at some luaus, there’s a hands-on arts and crafts portion before the meal and show starts, so you can get a slightly bigger picture of Hawaiian culture before gorging on pork and mai tais.
What am I missing, dearest fellow travelers?