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.