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).
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!
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.
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.
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.