Day 7: Saturday, December 31 (New Year’s Eve)

Beach near South Point Park, with built-in “bathtub” for a little Hawaiian boy
Green sand with critter footprints at South Point
Puu Alii–an ancient Hawaiian chief’s burial site
Jumping off the cliff and climbing up the rope ladders at South Point is a popular tourist sport.
This guy actually did a backflip, not a bellyflop.
Sea turtle at Black Sand Beach
Same turtle–the shell alone was at least 2 feet lengthwise!
Sea Urchins at Old Airport Recreation Area

Since we were planning on a bit more driving today, we got up, ready, and out early, and left the apartment at about 8 am, picnic lunch and cameras in tow (but forgetting our swimsuits for the second day in a row!). We drove down the Kona coast to South Point road, the access to the southernmost point of all the Hawaii Islands and actually of the entire US.  (We’ve already been to the southernmost point of the continental US on Key West, in 2013.)  We were a little concerned about driving there, because the various things we had looked up made it sound like the entire stretch of South Point road was going to be four-wheel-drive / Jeep territory.  That turned out to be nonsense.  It was twelve miles of super smooth, newly paved road, to a parking lot within, say, 70 feet of the cliffs of South Point Park, where people famously jump off the cliffs and climb back up on rope ladders (even if we had had our swimsuits, that would not have been our thing–but we did take pictures of several who jumped.  From there, we were able to take a beautiful and super comfortable walk on firm sand/clay and smooth lava along the coastline, watching the waves with virtually nobody around except a handful of jumpers, then some fishermen, and eventually some campers with kids and dogs who were clearly locals.  The landscape is beautiful, and the coolest part was to find some of the famous green sand.  There is an entire green sand beach, which we decided not to visit after we found various patches of this stuff (and scooped up a tiny little bit).  It’s called olivine, and actually a really common silicate, but there are only four green beaches in the world, and this green sand is the eroded cinder cone material from a volcano that formed 49,000 years ago (thank you, Wikipedia). Under a magnifying glass (which the engineer has with him at all times, of course), olivine sand looks like teeny little emeralds–beautiful. We also saw several barred areas where there are ancient Hawaiians burial grounds.  As we left, we met many more vehicles coming toward South Point, so I was really glad we came early and had the place practically to ourselves.  I am getting a bit tired of the crowded parking lots everywhere. 

After our visit to South Point, we stopped at nearby Black Sand Beach, which is unspectacular in terms of the sand, which frankly looks like ground up asphalt, because it is just ground up lava rock.  But the beach had a great picnic area, so we had our sandwiches and then treated ourselves to a frozen, chocolate-covered banana from a little vendor stand.  And then it turned out that it had the beautiful giant Hawaiian sea turtles, and we watched them from the shore (at the mandatory 25′ distance) as they munched on the algae on the rocks while buffeted by the waves.  They look like wet round rocks unless you see them stick their heads up, which they only do for split seconds at a time, so it took some patience to spot the turtles, and then to wait for a photo opportunity.  But they are quite impressive!  We then headed back home (at about 2 pm) to offload our picnic debris, get more water, and pack swimsuits and towels.  The beaches we saw on the way back up to Kona had looked painfully packed as it was a sunny day with minimal surf or gales  (I doubt Saturday or even New Year’s Day really made a difference–there are tourists here all the time). But we headed to the Old Airport Recreation area, which was a very quiet and long stretch of beach.  It turned out to have lots of rocks and not much access to real swimming, but lots of little shallow coves (which I named bathtubs) which were fun for sitting and splashing in.  We also wandered through various tide pool areas and saw very cool sea urchins and plenty of little crabs.

We headed home around 5, and I fixed a salad to contributed to a “PuPu party” that was happening at the resort.  PuPu are appetizers rather than whatever it sounds like to non-Hawaiian ears, and we joined a group of about 30 people.  The food was fun and miscellaneous (someone had brought delicious salmon from Alaska, and someone else a fantastic cheesecake that was obviously from a specialty bakery), but it took us quite a while to find people to talk to, which is not common for us.  But many who came to the party clearly knew each other, because they either own one of the units here and basically winter here, or because they come every year around this time for a week or two, and so they weren’t necessarily paying attention to the newcomers.  But we did get a conversation or two going, and wrapped up our presence at the party with a half hour in the hot tub with a family from Oregon.  Now the challenge is to actually stay up until midnight and watch the fireworks, which many people apparently light from their homes all over town for new year’s.  Commercial-grade fireworks are not allowed, but seem to still find their way onto the islands, so we’ll see what kind of displays we can catch from the pool side of the complex, which faces downtown Kona–if we last until midnight!

 

 

Day 8: Sunday, January 1

Sea turtle coming up for air
Sea turtle with Mark’s looming shadow
Sea turtle with Antje trying to keep the mandatory 25′ distance (sort of)
Snorkeling near Magic Sand Beach: A school of convict surgeonfish
Antje is giving boogie boarding a shot
This was a blast, but the wave was not nearly as tall as this GoPro shot suggests!
Double rainbow in Hawaii!
The road to the summit of Mauna Kea above the clouds
Four of the 13 observatories at the summit of Mauna Kea
The two bubble observatories are Keck 1 and Keck 2
One of the Keck observatories is “opening its eye” and starting to turn just after sunset
The summit of Mauna Kea with the top of Haleakala on Maui visible in the distance
Just before sunset
There were a small trickle of people and one dog on this side summit, snowboarding/sledding down
This crater has a lake, Waiau, inside (one of a very few on Hawaii, which can’t hold its liquids well)
Sunset above the clouds at the Mauna Kea summit
The rim of the Waiau crater after sunset–if you look close, you’ll see a hiker right on top
Venus and the moon (with its sickle at the bottom–an unusual sight for us northerners)

Our days here have all been so wonderful, but this one has possibly topped them all–if there ever was a day to start a New Year with a bang, this was it!  We went from below sea level in the morning, when we swam and snorkeled, to 13,000 feet on the top of Mauna Kea, where the famous observatories are. 

Although we didn’t REALLY make it to midnight on New Year’s Eve (we slept from 10 to just before midnight, sleepily watched some fireworks outside our apartment door, and went back to bed), we did ‘sleep in’ until after 7 am. I had expressed, in fairly emphatic terms, that I felt a severe beach deficit, since we had not really found a place to swim since our first day, so before it could get super crowded, we started our day at Magic Sands Beach, the same one that we had checked out on our very first day on foot.  We were there just before 9, found a parking spot and a spot for our stuff right away, and had a fabulous time.  There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, it was already in the mid-70s, and the waves were very manageable, so that we could swim out past the surf.  We ended up snorkeling again (thankfully, our apartment came with someone’s discarded snorkel sets!) and saw two turtles up close, as well as more fish) and, given the very mellow surf, I also tried some boogieboarding (again, with a boogie board left behind by previous guests).  We had such a good time!  We spent about 2 hours at the beach and I definitely got my ocean fix.

We drove home, rinsed off, and went to buy a few groceries and have a plate lunch at an unexpected place–a bowling alley that someone had recommended for (relatively) cheap rates.  But the food was disappointing–I had ahi tuna, but it was almost chewy, and Mark’s teriyaki chicken was also not very tender; the best thing was their version of the ubiquitous macaroni salad, which had both tuna and hard boiled eggs in it!  We went home for a little rest, partly because we were waiting for a resolution on an undecided issue–we had booked a trip up to the top of Mauna Kea for this afternoon, but they had called us to say that the road was closed because of icy conditions, and could we rebook for tomorrow?  We said we could, if need be, and they were going to call us back if the road was opened back up.  At around 2 pm they did call and let us know that the trip was a go, so we got ourselves ready, with warm clothes and jackets, and took off at 2:30 to meet the tour group an hour from Kona at a trailhead where the road goes up to the summit.   On the way there, we had some rain showers north of Kona, and then an unbelievable double rainbow that was almost too good to be true!

Around 4 pm, we met the other 4 people on the tour and our driver/tour guide, a young woman a few years out of college with a lot of information about Hawaiian politics, plants, and geology (not to mention the all-important astronomy), and drove up to the visitor center at 9,000 feet.  Given that we had started the day at sea level in the 80s with cloudless skies, the drive up into the clouds and into temps in the 50s, later in the 30s, was quite a change, but they have a hot water station at the visitor center, and we had hot chocolate as we looked around and got adjusted to the altitude for 40 minutes before moving on.  Our minivan with four-wheel drive then took us up a steep road with many switchbacks all the way to the top of Mauna Kea, where it was snowy and where the 13 telescopes are all sitting waiting, along with all the tourists, for sunset above the clouds and for nightfall.  We saw people snowboarding, and there were even hikers on the rim of the crater that has a lake (Lake Waiau) in it, even though the area closes for traffic 30 minutes after nightfall.  It was eerily beautiful up on the summit, with the clouds beneath us, the snow, the telescopes (which opened and started turning after sunset), Maui visible in the distance, and then the setting sun.  And then, as we drove back down to the visitor center, the stars came out (even on top, we had seen the moon, with its sickle at the bottom like a big Cheshire Cat grin, because of our latitude, and Venus right above it), and by the time we got our ramen noodle soup eaten and were ready for the daily astronomy show, we couldn’t even identify the ‘usual’ constellations anymore because we could see SO MANY STARS.  Mark had seen a comparably clear sky in Madagascar, where there is little light pollution, but here, the thin atmosphere and the geographical location (with 100% of the northern sky and 85% of the southern sky visible) make for the best skywatching anywhere.  We were there for part of the astronomy presentation, and it was a fun mix of things I knew and things I didn’t–the presenter was great, but could have gotten past the moon and the planets to constellations and beyond a bit faster–we could only stay for an hour! There were hundreds of people listening, and the amateur telescopes that were set up had very long lines, so I only got to see a painfully bright Venus and the Andromeda galaxy, but it was still fantastic.  A couple of miles down the road we already had cloudy skies and rain again, so it was hard to believe that we had been under those unbelievably clear skies minutes earlier.

Mark drove us the hour back home to the apartment, we added some ice cream to our somewhat limited ramen & hot chocolate dinner, and we wrapped up the day by looking through the photo harvest of the day.

 

 

 

 

Day 9: Monday, January 2

Boogie boarding 101
We assume it’s a kind of plover, but we did not find it in the bird book.
Mauna Kea from the West, with observatories (if you go to the enlarged photo)
The valleys of the northwest from Waipio Valley Lookout, with a black sand beach
Waipio Valley with waterfall
The rocks at Laupahoehoe Point Beach Park
Surf at Laupahoehoe Point Beach Park
Crab with cool aggressive front pinchers
Cool bloom
Cool bloom # 2
Huge fern leaf (10-12′ across)
Rainforest vegetation at Akaka Falls
Water drops on plant
Akaka Falls (442 feet!)
The setting sun from our lanai (=balcony)
Sun hit cloud bank; that was it for the sunset!
But then we got the moonset!  In Hawaii, the waxing moon always gives you a widening Cheshire Cat grin! 

True to our habits, we woke & got up early and Mark, being the awesome guy he is, took me for an early splash at the Magic Sand beach, although he himself didn’t feel like swimming anymore.  So he walked around and took pictures while I snorkeled and boogie-boarded one last time (tomorrow, we won’t want to get our swimsuits wet before leaving!).  Then we drove back home, I rinsed off and we took off for our last big road trip.  We went northeast toward Waimea, driving the Hawaii Belt, which has some fabulous views of the Kona coast and its lava flow areas from above, and then Mauna Kea on the right, with the telescopes clearly visible far in the distance.  When we got near Waimea, we were basically driving into low-level clouds and thought we might not go very far forward, because it was all drizzly and soupy with poor visibility.  But we had been told by a friend that we needed to go to the Waipi’o valley overlook, basically across from the overlook at Upolu point on the western edge of the big valleys. To our surprise, the clouds lightened as we got back to the coast, and while we had partly cloudy skies, we had no more rain on the coast.  We were still undecided whether to travel the coast line or go back to Waimea, but a traffic jam decided the issue for us, and we continued on the loop all the way to Hilo with many stops when things looked interesting.

For lunch, we stopped at a beach park (Laupahoehoe) where the very rocky coastline made awesome splashy waves, and where a lot of people were drying out their tents after what looked to have been a pretty hefty downpour the night before. We then went along the coast to see the waterfalls in one of the gorges–Akaka Falls, which is freefalling, and a couple of others that are cascading.  The walk around was great because of the incredible, outsized rainforest vegetation–ferns with a “wingspan” of 10 feet or more, giant rhododendron leaves, huge, weird alien blooms, vines that grow roots at the bottom and form curtains on trees, things that I have only ever seen in hothouses. This entire corner of Hawaii is all basically all lush rainforest, and we went on a little scenic route that went through tunnels of the stuff.  Not to mention lava tubes on the roadside and other surprises.

We got to Hilo at about 3:30 pm, but didn’t stop; instead, we took the road that cuts across the island (Highway 200), past a little bit of construction and, again, the access road to Mauna Kea, and drove home–Mark drove 170 miles today, and, given that we took the northern road to Hilo, we have officially driven once around the island on available, legitimate two-wheel drive roads–266 miles around (thanks Internet).  I fixed us a lovely dinner with our last fresh food–pasta, canned pasta sauce enhanced with caramelized onions and peppers, a salad, and the rest of our ice cream with some chocolate and coconut mochi bars.  We ate this on the balcony (aka lanai on Hawaii) with the sun going down as a Hawaiian-style boat with the upside-down sail passed by… awesome.

We then went for a walk to the same-old, same-old downtown, and picked up a couple of souvenirs for the kids; we also found an abandoned souvenir coffee cup and promptly took it home with us.  We called it a night pretty early and got ready for our last night with the sound of the surf (low-key as it has been the last few days) coming in through the open lanai door.

 

 

 

 

Day 10 (Departure Day): January 3, 2017

Dolphins within view of our lanai (balcony)
Lanai visitor # 1: Java Sparrow
Lanai visitor # 2: Zebra Dove
Lanai visitor# 3: Gecko
The Minecraft Tree!  Given that it had a ladder, we suspect there is a treehouse in it.
The X-Man Spider (I made that up, but isn’t he beautiful?)
Parakeets???? (NOT indigenous)
And another parakeet
Cattle Egret
A juvenile Black-Crowned Night Heron–huge, at least 20″ tall!
Some kind of grouse…
Sea turtle in zen-like rest state
More sea turtle
A Heap o’Turtles
Antje at the Turtle Beach
Watching our last sunset already in winter-appropriate footwear
Our last sunset

 

Our departure day was much more of a real vacation day than I have ever had, I think. Our plane wasn’t scheduled to depart until 9:15, and the rental owner had kindly extended our checkout time until 2 pm.  So we were able to pack and clean up after ourselves at a leisurely pace in the morning , and while we were doing that, we noticed a lot of boats, snorkelers and boards out in the bay not that far away–and figured out that there was a sizable pod of dolphins out there! So we watched dolphins along with them for over half an hour from the lanai (balcony), and while we were doing so, the two adorable Java sparrows that have been coming to the lanai. one of the ubiquitous zebra doves, and a gecko all came to hang out with us. We left for what was really our only unsuccessful endeavor in this entire trip. I had found a botanical garden in Kona on-line, and while it did exist, it was teeny and not really very well maintained, so we couldn’t figure out much about the various trees and flowers we wanted to learn more about. At first it looked like there was another promising garden just a few miles further down the coast, but we learned from the internet that it closed a while back. The botanical garden we passed by yesterday and decided not to stop for would have been our only real shot! Oh well. At least Mark found a totally cool-looking spider.

We made up for this (relative) disappointment with fabulous animal watching later on in the day (see below), but first we did our duty as tourists and parents and did a bit of shopping. We started with lunch at a Hawaiian fast-food place (L & L BBQ), where Mark had sesame chicken with rice and the ubiquitous macaroni salad, and I had what I can only describe as fake sushi–rice and a piece of meat wrapped in sushi wrap–with the piece of meat being (1) a slice of sausage, (2) a rectangle of spam, and (3) a piece of breaded chicken. It was pretty flavorless and, above all, vegetable-less.  Then we walked the main coastal Promenade one more time in search of a pan flute for Kai, a sarong for Kati, and little Hawaiian dress for Jupiter, and –not planned but anyway–a batik dress for me. This tried our patience a bit, especially since it was the hottest and most humid day of the entire trip (“feels like 86”), and we made it back to the apartment only three minutes after 2 pm. But we got a new apartment key code and got to retrieve our suitcase, bags, and last food items.

With those safely stowed in the car, we drove to the Kaloko-Honokonau National Historical Park, which sits between the former old airport that is now a park and beach, and the actual airport, and where we had heard earlier this week that there was good sea turtle watching. NO KIDDING!  It was not always easy to stay at the required 20 feet distance, as there were gigantic sleeping turtles all over the beach and the rocks . Strangely enough, we also saw a lonely Brandt goose and five bright green parakeets, as well as some sort of grouse, a tree full of snowy white cattle egrets, and, at a traditional fish pond, a strange-looking large bird with yellow feet and red eyes that, on further investigation, turned out to be a juvenile black-crowned night heron.  At about 5 pm, we headed out of the park, and I reluctantly put on socks and sneakers after my last barefoot beach romp.  We tried to look for dinner nearby even as it took a little bit of  extra searching ( I really didn’t want to go back downtown!!), and ended up at a locally sourced Thai restaurant. We split a drunken chicken dish on rice that I loved, with super fresh vegetables and a very aromatics sauce made with kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass and ginger, all of which we got to fish out of the broth.  Mark wasn’t as impressed, but I loved this fresh, veggie-loaded food and was also happy with the vegan coconut gelato I had for dessert.  We finished just in time to drive back to the turtle beach and station ourselves in a glory spot for our last sunset over the ocean.  It was our first sunset to really meet the ocean at the horizon, and truly beautiful.  Once we had watched the sun go down as red fireball, we took off for the airport, got through security, and then reluctantly changed into our travel/winter clothes, since it will be in the teens in Colorado and Nebraska tomorrow.  The wait at the airport was uneventful, although it was fun to be in an airport that is almost all outside /open air, with some roofed areas but open on all sides, and with the  old-fashioned staircase to the plane. It was not as full as planes usually are theses days, and we were actually able to sleep through most of our long flight to snowy Denver.