Sunday, December 25 — A very pleasant, un-Christmas-y Christmas Day spent in airports and airplanes, as we took off from Eppley in Omaha, flew to Denver, then to San Francisco, and eventually to Kona International on the Big Island of Hawai’i. Although it was only a little before 8 pm that we arrived on Hawai’i after the the 5 1/2 hour flight, it was of course pitch dark (sunset is currently shortly before 6 pm) but WARM–70 at least. We got our rental car without a hitch, and drove the 20 or so minutes South to the complex, Sea Village, with the vacation rental that we rented from our friend Mark (Dahmke). It’s a spacious one-bedroom on the third floor, among hundreds of others, but the complex is pleasantly set up and when he bought this unit a few years ago, he chose well–the balcony overlooks the ocean, which is probably about 50 feet away on the other side of a seawall made out of the ubiquitous volcanic rocks. We couldn’t see much of it, of course (a few spotlights illuminated the nearby area) but we could hear the waves crashing against the rocks–a wonderful sound. That’s when we decided we wouldn’t use the bedroom, which sits at the back end of the complex toward the stairs, and has only very small, high windows, but instead use the pull-out couch in the living room, to sleep with the door open and the sound lulling us to sleep. Worked like a charm! We both slept really well, and the jet-lag worthy time difference of 4 hours from Nebraska time hasn’t bothered us so far.
Monday, December 26 — This was our getting-acclimated, staying-local day. We drove along the long, long coastal road, Ali’i Drive that connects downtown Kona with its many many touristy restaurants and shops, to all these vacation rental complexes, and had breakfast overlooking the ocean at the Fish Hopper, took a brief stroll across the pier, and then got groceries at the local Safeway (in Hawai’i, that pretty much means not reading any price tags, but just getting what you’d normally get and expect to pay double or more–so very little is produced locally that you always have to assume that the groceries you buy have taken the same trip from the mainland you have, and at a similarly exorbitant cost). We walked out with breakfast food, and some backup for dinners and packed lunches (salad ingredients, bread, pasta) because we do get tired of restaurant food and love being a little more flexible than that. After getting ourselves set up, we took off for a long-ish (2.5 mile) walk to a beach south of us that was recommended for its swimmability–the many little public coastal access points get you to the water, but the rocks make it hard and also dangerous to get it. This beach (Magic Sand beach) was the classic white sand beach that’s a bit of a rarity on Hawai’i, but still with quite a number of rocks and those wonderful crashing waves. We splashed around (not really swimming because the surf made that difficult, and I am not experienced enough as an ocean swimmer to get past the surf and swim in the calm waters beyond it. We didn’t have bodyboards (that would have been fun, judging from the joy of many kids playing in the waves), but we did discover some in our place that we’ll throw in the car for future explorations. We walked home again after a couple of hours, now fairly hungry for some lunch, and had some lovely panini in the little coffee shop right outside of sea village. Since it’s a vacation, we hung out and napped for part of the afternoon, checked out the seawall (our friend, the owner of the rental, has a web cam that takes pictures of the area every 2 seconds, so we had fun seeing ourselves sitting on the seawall in one of his images! We took back off around dinnertime and walked the mile to downtown Kona to have a lovely dinner (fish burger with the catch of the day for me, hamburger for Mark, with very fresh veggies/fruit to go with it) and to walk through the shop-lined streets for a little bit. Not my favorite parts of traveling, but in the dark, with tacky Christmas & Hawai’i lighting and with live music and luaus as sound accompaniment emanating from every street corner, it was fun anyway. We were home around 8 pm, and I fell asleep at 8:45 to the sound of those awesome waves.
This was a big, adventurous day! We drove from our place to Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, which takes about 100 miles and a bit more than two hours going around the south side of the island. The highway is smooth / looks news but is also winding and requires some concentration, so yay for Mark’s driving skills. We had some fabulous views, since the road goes pretty high up the slopes that are this island early on past the coastal stretch, and we could look down over lots of green, and occasionally LOTS of black, to the ocean. We had gotten up fairly early and arrived at the park a little after 10. We went on a small exploratory walk that was already stunning: to the sulphuric banks and an array of steam vents that were near the big caldera of the Kilauea volcano that we’d mostly come to see. Then we got to stand on the rim of the larger caldera and walk along a gorgeous bit of rainforest trail back to the visitor center. The museum and main overlook are a little drive away, so we went there next, to look at a bunch of steam coming out of the actual active crater. We learned that the first goes about 300 feet down, and the second another 400 or so. And because of the current activity, no one can get closer than the outer rim, so the steam is all we could see. Very cool, though. We had brought our picknick lunch and we had it right there on the terrace of the Jaggar Museum that explains everything and has web cams.
After lunch, we had planned on a hike that a ranger had recommended, but the parking was so crowded that we decided to drive down the “Chain of Craters Road,” a 19-mile drive from Kilauea’s Rim Drive (which is partly closed because of fumes) at 4000 feet to the coast, with many stops along the way to look into smaller craters, look across at the active spot at the small new volcano, Pu’u O’o, and climb around on lava fields from a fairly recent (1969) lava flow that started at Maura Ulu. It was fascinating to see the different patterns in the lava, partly caused by splatter, partly by the push of the flow, etc. I knew vaguely about the volcanic activity on the island, but I had no idea how much of its southern coast is simply covered with lava, some of it with no vegetation on it at all yet. Even a hundred years isn’t much in terms of vegetation coming back, and so huge swaths of land and coastline are this fantastic moonscape of black and gray, with little pockets of green where the lava just didn’t happen to flow. Down at the end of the Chain of Craters Road, it was especially impressive, because the lava there has formed into dramatic, gorgeous cliffs where we could watch (and feel) the surf crashing against the feet of the cliff. And looking east, we could see the steam plume from the spot where there is currently lava flowing into the sea. It’s a hefty hike to get close from this National Park side (5 miles one way) and so we were not quite up for that today, but we probably will go back and try to go from the other side (we hear that’s currently a 6-mile round trip hike, so more manageable for us; it changes all the time, of course). We drove back up the crater road and stopped to look down at the small “Little Kilauea” caldera, which we might also hike some other day. For today, we just hiked along the caldera’s rim for half a mile through some beautiful rainforest to the huge walkable Lava Tube and checked that out. Also very cool, although (as almost everything in the park) very crowded.
We then left the park to go have dinner in nearby “Volcano Village” at a Thai restaurant (classic island prices but very good, fresh food), and went back into the park just right around 6 pm (sunset time) to see the caldera at night. That’s when it actually impressed us (and the hundreds of others who had come to see it) most: the lava illuminates the steam plume from below with a spooky reddish glow, and every now and then we could see a bit of lava splash up! How awesome is that–short of the helicopter ride that is so insanely expensive that we decided to forego it, that’s as close as one could get to an active volcano. We left a little before 8, thoroughly wowed and a little cold (I had wrapped myself in a towel, but Mark just had a t-shirt on, and it got a bit nippy after dark). Then Mark drove the entire 2+ hours back in the dark, while I fell asleep within minutes in the car! We were too tired to look at our photos but crashed pretty much right away after getting home.
Another big adventure day! I woke up a little too early, and when I looked out our big window onto the ocean around 6, was greatly surprised to see a bunch of lights that I could spot even without glasses. A huge cruise ship was sitting in the Kona bay; apparently, they come through every Wednesday with almost 2,500 guests who get spilled out onto the shore for the day–a bit like in Key West, where we spent a couple of days 4 years ago, and where the same thing happens daily. We had booked a snorkeling trip on a MUCH smaller vessel for this morning, so we got on the road early and drove to the nearby dock at Keauhou Bay (about 20 minutes from here) and joined 12 other passengers, a tour guide/lifeguard and a captain (who was operating the boat, a sort of motorized rubber boat (with 300 horsepower engines on the back, as Mark noticed). It was complete blast. We sat on the rubber tubing facing in and holding on, 7 on each side, and at 40 mph, it was pretty much a carnival ride except with scenery and on water. We had very calm water and gorgeous sunshine as we zipped south on the coast with a couple of stops for caves and lava tubes in the cliff side. There was quite a bit of “vog” (volcano steam smog) over the land, and since we had seen yesterday where that came from (namely from Kilauea), even that was very cool to see, although it’s not good air to breathe!). After about an hour, we stopped right outside a historical park, where the snorkeling is especially good, and got to spend about 45 minutes snorkeling. It was unbelievable. I didn’t “really” snorkel, that is, I didn’t get my snorkel under water, but that was mostly because I was too buoyant–only the very skinny young people were able to push into the water! Otherwise, we just floated and stared in awe at the coral reef and the fishes and sea urchins all over. Bright yellow tang and black durgeon trigger fish, very cool stripey butterfly fish and parrotfish and the whole tropical nine yards (yes, we cheated and looked them up later, which is why I know that we also saw needlefish and a spotted box fish). It was truly like swimming inside “Finding Nemo” although there are no clown fish here.
After 45 minutes, we all climbed back on board (it wasn’t exactly cold water, but I was glad to warm up for a little bit), and fed us some snacks and Hawaiian juice pops. Then we made our way along the coast to Kealakekua Bay, where Captain Cook landed on his stops in Hawai’i, and where he also got himself killed by the Hawaiians on his last stop. I hadn’t known that about Captain Cook and will have to look up the details at some point. That’s where, unbelievably, the snorkeling was even better (it was also rather crowded with snorkelers from many boats like ours). Not only did the fish come in bigger schools but we had the reef within feet of us, but a few feet off was a dramatic drop off into blue nothingness. Very impressive. We spent another 45 minutes or so snorkeling in this area, and then, before we took off, we had the good luck of being able to see several pods of spinner dolphins right in that same bay. Some even jumped out of the water–it was incredible. On the trip back, we stopped a few more times along the rocky, cliffs coast line for caves, arches, and lava tubes, including a spot where people were jumping of the cliffs into the water. It was really an incredible expedition, and the photos do not do it justice.
We drove home around 12:30, and I fixed us a lovely lunch of salad and grilled ham and cheese at the condo while Mark presorted the many many photos he took. We took a little nap and then, around 4 pm, took off for our walk to Kona’s downtown. We stopped at the little market that is part farmer’s market, part tourist claptrap (just what you would imagine: things made out of shells, earrings with motifs like turtles and dolphins, colorful batiks and ukuleles). We bought a papaya, some apple bananas, and some local honey for Mark’s tea and my vinaigrette, and also saw some beautiful little geckos in the produce. We were also hugely surprised because an old church that we had seen only two days earlier suddenly looked like a huge red-and-white Christmas present–it’s being tented and treated for termites, and we had never seen a church encased like this! We then strolled down to the Kona Canoe Club restaurant, where we could have our unsensational burger and pulled pork sandwich with a great view of the harbor. And since it looked like a promising night for a sunset (our first one not obscured by clouds or mountainsides), we sat on the seawall with an ice cream cone after dinner) and watched the sun sink into the ocean with the pier on one side and the giant cruise ship, refilled with its passengers and ready to move on, on the other side. A great end to a great day! We walked home in the dusk, and spent the rest of the evening sorting photos, doing laundry, and winding down for the day.
If Tuesday was our “Fire Day” (Volcanoes National Park”) and Wednesday was Water Day (Snorkeling the coral reefs), today was the perfect Hegelian synthesis of the two, as we got to see lava flowing into the ocean! That’s the short version! The “let’s remember what we did today” variation goes like this:
We got an early start, with a picnic lunch in two and the plan of going to South Point, the southern tip of the island, today–a plan we later ditched for now. We went down the same coastal highway as before, but stopped at a National Historical site that my friend Laurie, who lives on Kaua’i, had recommended–it is a recreation of former royal grounds of the kings and priests, and the place of refuge, or Pu’uhonua o Honanau, where people who had broken the law of the land could basically apply for asylum and purge themselves of their crime, and where children and old people could find shelter during war times. It was a nice little walk directly on the coast line, but despite the recreated huts and the long wall made of lava without mortar that marked off the place of refuge, it was still hard to envision the life of the ancient Hawaiians for me. But we did see some cool plants, including the weird-looking noni or Indian Mulberry.
As we drove on, we decided on the spur of the moment (with the help of the always-accessible internet info) that this would be our day to drive the extra two hours from where we were to the access point for the easiest, shortest route to the current lava flow. So we drove past the national park, and to the southwestern corner of the island and found ourselves a lovely lunch in a small cafe in the town of Mountain View (I finally had a plate lunch, the famous “put something of everything on the plate” that is the classic Hawaiian diner meal–it was delicious and very fresh, including a coconut jello-style dessert and some nice carnitas-style pork, but also poi, a blob made out of a pounded, creamed root called kalo or taro for a starch that tasted like absolutely nothing in a really startling way–thickened water comes to mind as a descriptor). Then we took a little detour to see the coastline as far into the southeastern corner of the island as we could. It was a gorgeous, lush green rainforest with occasional “jungle tunnels” where the vegetation was over our heads as well as on the side of the road. We stopped at a couple of little recreation areas on the way, to watch the waves crash into the rocks (my current obsession) and we even got to watch surfers for a while at a little local beach access called Isaac Hale Beach.
Then we made our way to the end of Highway 130, to Kalapana, where the county has provided east-side access to the national park are where the lava flow is. We tried to time it right for about 3 pm, when the area opens for hikers. As we were searching for the right parking lot, Mark ended up talking to a local, name of “Doc” who said he had a house on the way and would let us park a bit closer than the usual parking lot, if we wanted to shorten our hike by a mile each way. That sounded a bit sketchy to me (he was making $ 20 off of us that way), but I trusted Mark’s usual good luck with such things, and we ended up following him through the long, long parking lot with room for hundreds of vehicles and lots of impromptu food stands, knick knack tables, and bicycle rentals, as the lush vegetation abruptly stopped where the lava flow from 1983 began and we got the barren, alien landscape from the other day. We really did get about a mile further in, past the county’s guards, who just needed to hear that we were “with Doc” to let us go past the access gates. Doc’s “house,” along with five or so others in the same area, was a half-finished hut built on top of the lava flow. Apparently, this lava-covered area (which according to Doc looked just like the rainforest coastline we had seen further east) is now being re-surveyed, and people who had claim to a lost piece of land through Hawaiian ancestry get it back. So he built his here (although now 150 feet further inland than before the lava flow), right near the emergency access route that has now become the “lava flow route” that is taken by thousands of tourists a day, by bike and on foot, since the flow, charmingly named 61g, started just this past May, reaching the ocean in July.
We parked and hiked from Doc’s across the endless black lava from the 1983 Kilauea eruption (which had activity off and on for 27 years, then stopped, and has now produced this little flow) until we reached the roped-off area on National Parks ground about 2 miles in. Then we clambered down to the area with the active flow into the sea, which was visible in the daytime, even with the steam cloud that obscured most of it most of the time, and then also up into the lava field above, where we knew there wouldn’t be active lava, but some steam vents and an area where we could see the heat shimmer through a crack below. The ranger we talked to estimated that the lava tube is about 10 feet below the surface–at this point, there is no lava visible anywhere in the area except where it meets the sea. That’s of course the spot we headed back to near sunset. We found ourselves a spot among the hundreds of tourists that accumulated–a really good viewing spot, as Mark’s photos show, so close to the cliff drop off that some people didn’t want to be there–but we were on this almost impossible to skid on lava surface AND sitting down! We stayed there for about an hour just watching the constantly changing flow of the lava, the waves trying to “extinguish” the lava (in vain, of course), rocks flying, lava splashing–it was just mesmerizing. Then we climbed back up across the lava to the dirt road in the dark, with the help of flashlights and iPhones–it was fun to see the endless string of headlamps, bike lights, flashlights, and cell phone lights before and after us, as people were still coming and others leaving, many on rented bikes, about a quarter or so on foot, with only a parade of blinking lights visible. We were back at the car before 8, and then drove home, eating our picnic lunch as dinner on the road. We took a different route (Route 200 across the middle of the island, going between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa) this time, which we knew had construction, but was shorter, and since it was late enough not to have a lot of traffic, we still made it back home in about 2 hours, by 10 pm–we were good and tired by then, especially Mark, who did all the driving, but what a great day! We had some rain on the way home, but that was the first real rain we’ve had–and it was incredible that it held off while we were on the lava fields, making a perfect day even more unbelievably perfect.
Postscript: On December 31, two days after we visited the lava flow viewing area, both the east and west areas were closed by the national park service until further notice after a massive collapse of the lava delta that we were watching with such fascination!
We got up today planning not to do quite as much hiking or driving after our long day yesterday. We stayed around the apartment a bit longer, looking at our lava photos and putzing with our blog, and then left about 9:30 for the trip UP the coast (“North” evokes the wrong impression, especially if you can only go north from Kona for less than 50 miles. With a couple of stops along the way, we drove up Highway 19, which first goes across yet another lava flow, from about 200 years ago, partly built on (the entire Kona airport is built on top of that lava field), but mostly just bare. This is a different-looking lava, so we did our on-the-road homework and found out that yesterday, we were walking on smooth, easy to maneuver Pahoehoe lava, which often looks like ropes or elephant skin folds, and is caused by slow-flowing lava, while today, we saw mostly A’a lava, which flows fast enough to scrunch the newly formed crust together, making big piles of smaller, very sharp rocks that look from afar like mounds of dirt. It’s very strange to move out of this kind of hostile landscape after a few miles, and be suddenly surrounded by gentle slopes of pale green grass on what must be lava flow from thousands of years ago, covered now with topsoil and vegetation. That was pretty much the landscape until we got to the northernmost towns of Hawaii, Hawi and Kapaau–at which point we were back in rainforest land, with the classic gigantic leaves and blooms everywhere. We had a delicious fresh lunch in Hawi, and I got to taste spearfish for the first time in my life, but we also paid a crazy amount of money for what was basically a salad/sandwich lunch with ice tea and a cookie that we shared. “Island prices” have a whole new dimensions on Hawaii. After lunch, we went another few miles further east (we were already as North as we could get), to a lookout we had read about called Pololu. From there, we could hike down into this unbelievable coastal rainforest landscape of cliffs covered with bright green vegetation–again, along with many others who braved the very muddy/slippery but otherwise not dangerous hike to a rock beach where the lava had all been shaken around enough to become smooth round boulders (not quite small enough to be pebbles) that made an incredible sound when the waves knocked them against each other. Behind the beach, which formed a natural barrier, a marsh and a huge rainforest valley opened up. It was so pretty down there, and the hike had so many beautiful views that we didn’t even mind the steep climb and the mud.
Once we were off again, we stopped at a few lookouts on the way back–out by the Hawi mini airport (nothing was going on there, but it is as far north on that coast as you can go without falling off), where the surprising thing turned out to be that I felt like I was back in Northern Germany–with lush green meadows, Holsteins and a wind farm. But it would have been Northern Germany in June, not December. :). We also caught several glimpses of the silhouette of Maui’s nearby mountain, Haleakala, which is a 10,000-foot dormant volcano. I hadn’t realized until it rose up before us that Maui was only 30 miles across the water! We’re still learning so much about Hawaii every day like the greenhorns we are about this place! We didn’t take any real beach time, since it was overcast and not so exciting for water play today, but we found a fun, fairly quiet beach that we might return to, Spencer Beach Park. We did make one last stop on the way home, just before the Kona airport, where a huge (and I mean huge) lava tube is visible from the road side. We clambered all over the terrain; it is really impressive to imagine what this landscape was like when this particular eruption (1801 or so) devastated this area just north of Kona. We made our way home with the last groceries (and the first souvenirs for the kids) in tow, and I cooked us a lovely simple dinner–pasta with a jar of marinara sauce and some sautéed peppers and onions, plus a lovely salad, since we had picked up fresh local romaine and some fruit at the farmer’s market the other day. We even had ice cream for dessert, so dinner was a real success, and it was nice to be home and done with our day early (around 7 pm).