Big Times on the Big Island, Part 3

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.

I mean, really

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.

On the factory floor

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.

Driving to Waimea

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.

I was driving across a burning desert…

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.

Big night out on the Big Island

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 royal court arrives

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!