Monday, February 28, 2011

Travels on the Big Island: Snorkeling with the Dolphins

Part 6
(View Part I—Overview)

Leaving Volcanoes National Park, we follow Highway 11 towards the village of Captain Cook and our next bed and breakfast.

Note: The village of Captain Cook is near the Captain Cook Monument, a white obelisk on British soil erected to honor the famed explorer killed on this spot in 1779. To visit the monument, you can kayak from across the bay or follow a steep hiking trail from the road up above. We did this hike in 1979, but skipped it this trip.
Along the way, we take a slight detour to visit Punalu’u Black Sand Beach. We are rewarded with seeing two beautiful Hawaiian Green Sea turtles sunning themselves on the black lava rocks.

Hawaiian green sea turtles at Punalu'u Black Sand Beach

We find our way to the village of Captain Cook and the Areca Palms Estate Bed & Breakfast. The house sits up on the hill above Captain Cook and offers great views of the sea to the west. The breakfast is superb—we had a lovely quiche, fresh fruit, bread, juice, and tea or coffee. They have a two-night minimum, but we were able to stay just one night.

More Coral

Hosts Steve and Janice Glass helped us plan our snorkeling trip the next day and we selected Honaunau Bay (commonly called Two Step—because of its convenient two-step entry into the water) and Pu’uhonua o Honaunau (Place of Refuge), a wonderful cultural attraction.

I'm snorkeling!

The snorkeling experience was one of the highlights of our trip. We donned lightweight wetsuit tops that allowed us to stay in the water for over two hours. The coral was varied, colorful, with intricate structure. Deeper in the bay (beyond the coral and any good snorkeling), we saw many, many spinner dolphins. They generally kept fairly deep, but of course, surfaced for air. At one point, a frisky dolphin put on a show, jumping and spinning as if frolicking in a park.

Spinner Dolphins
Spinner Dolphins coming up for air

Unwilling to leave such a magical place, we came out for lunch, rested a bit, then returned to the water for more time with the dolphins.

Next: Body boarding in Kohala

Travels on the Big Island: Hiking in Volcanoes National Park

Part 5
(View Part I—Overview)

Just a mile outside of Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, the Hale Ohia Cottages provided us with a cozy room in a rustic wooden building. The room featured a queen bed, a mini-fridge, a couple of chairs, and a generously sized bathroom. While technically a bed and breakfast, breakfast was in-room coffee, freshly baked bread, fruit, and juice. I had to ask for hot water for tea, and the rusted out electric teapot sent me looking for take-out tea the next morning. Because breakfast is delivered the day before to your room, you miss out on the usual camaraderie among guests that bed and breakfasts typically provide.

Kilauea Caldera

Volcano at night can be quite chilly, with temperatures dipping below 50. So, while the space heater in the room generates warmth, we really wanted to hang out in a common room with a roaring fire. The fireplace in the common room was dormant and no one was around.

Kilauea Overlook

The next morning we drove to the park (paid our $10 entrance fee, which is good for seven days) to explore a not-so-dormant volcano, the mighty Kilauea.

Note: Areas in the park are always subject to closure due to current activity of Kilauea. A portion of Crater Rim Drive, between Jaggar Museum and the Chain of Craters Road junction is closed indefinitely due to the new vent that opened within Halema`uma`u Crater in March 2008. Halema`uma`u Crater is within the Kilauea Crater. (Link to closures in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park here.)
We elected to hike the Kilauea Iki Trail. The Kilauea Iki (“little Kilauea”) is a crater within a crater. It erupted in 1959, providing fountains of gushing lava up to 1900 feet above the vent. The hike is approximately 4 miles long and takes you through lush rain forest before descending about 400 feet onto the crater floor. You walk across the crater floor, viewing steam vents and vegetation that struggles to retake its place amidst the cooled lava. ‘Ohi’a blossoms, ‘ohelo berries, and ferns dot the floor. In some cases, ferns sprout from cracks in the lava floor.

Rain Forest Fern
'Ohi'a Blossoms

Back up to the top, you can take a short detour and view the Thurston Lava tube. Lava tubes form when surface lava cools while hot lava underground continues to flow. When the flow stops, a hollowed-out tube remains. The current lava flow from the Pu’u O’o vent travels to the ocean in similar tubes.

Thurston Lava Tube

We finished our hike ready for lunch and our next adventure: finding a place to watch the Pittsburgh – Jets playoff game. (Love is a compromise! I get my morning hike and he gets his afternoon football. The good thing is that he enjoys hiking and I enjoy watching football!) We drove back down highway 11 to Hilo and found Cronies Sports Bar & Grill (11 Waianuenue Avenue, Hilo), a great sports bar with many large-screen TVs. Volcano Village is a bit lacking with places open on Sunday afternoon to catch an NFL playoff game. Bonus: we met some very nice and knowledgeable Hilo football fans!

Nene (Hawai'ian Goose)
Lava Trees

The next morning, we selected our second hike. A fairly short hike (2.5 mile round trip) takes you to the top of the Pu’u Huluhulu cinder cone, providing a nice view looking towards Pu’u ‘O’o. You walk through old lava flows filled with lava trees, structures that echo trees destroyed by lava. Before succumbing, these moisture-filled trees cool the surrounding lava quickly enough to preserve their shapes.

'Ohelo BerriesNext: Snorkeling with the Dolphins

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Travels on the Big Island: Lava Viewing

Part 4
(View Part I—Overview)

The helicopter tour whetted my appetite. I wanted to see more lava! The second way you can view new lava is to drive from Hilo to the end of Highway 130, where the road is closed from lava flow.

Forest CanopyWhat you get to see exactly, no one can say ahead of time. It’s a lava lottery! The viewing area is open from 2:00pm until 10:00pm. People like to stay after dark so they can see lava glowing.

Lava rocks at the beach

We arrived that afternoon. Two days previously, new flow crossed the road and took out a residence. When we arrived, that new lava was still hot, steamy, silver in color, but not glowing. Disappointment! But about 50 yards away, we saw a river of lava (well, maybe a stream of lava) glowing red as it coursed down a crack of older lava. In the area vendors were selling escorted hikes to the sea, hikes to active lava, and souvenirs. As the crowds got bigger, the security guards kept a tight watch to make sure people wouldn’t take off and walk on hot lava. (I’m not kidding.)

Road's End
At Road's End Highway 130

A house survives
A house survives amidst lava flows

Fern peeks through
A fern peeks out

Hot lava glowing in the distance
Hot lava!

Pele's Art

Pele's Art provides awesome formations

After a bit of time viewing the awesome destructive power of lava flows, we retreated back to Highway 11 to make our way to Volcano Village and our next lodging.

Next: Hiking in Volcano

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Travels on the Big Island: Helicopter Tour

Part 3
(View Part I—Overview)

The best way to see active lava flows on the Big Island is by helicopter (well, unless you are lucky enough to see an active flow at the end of Highway 130, but that’s hit or miss). But helicopter tours present some decisions. First, helicopter tours are expensive. The consolation is that years from now, you will probably remember the exciting helicopter tour and you will forget how expensive it is. Second, the weather on the Hilo side will almost always have clouds and some rain. With Blue Hawaiian Helicopter Tours, you are given big discounts by signing up online ahead of time, but then you are locked in. If the weather is not ideal, you’re stuck. On the other hand, if you wait for perfect weather, you may wait awhile. Of course, if the weather is really bad, so that it is dangerous to fly or you can’t see anything, Blue Hawaiian will cancel the tour and either reschedule your flight or give you a full refund.

Hamakua Coast Waves

We signed up for a 10:00am tour ahead of time and hoped for decent weather. We left our cute little guesthouse in Honoka’a Friday morning and took a leisurely drive along the Hamakua Coast to our next lodging, the Inn at Kulaniapia Falls. Along the way we saw Laupahoehoe Point, a rugged point that is the site of a 1946 tsunami that killed 21 school children. We also saw ‘Akaka Falls, a 4-mile scenic drive to Onomea Bay, and somewhere along the way, a scenic overlook where we had lunch. We arrived early at the Inn at Kulaniapia Falls.

Tropical Foilage

This charming bed and breakfast is a multi-building complex built in an Asian style. It was by far my favorite place, and I was sorry that we had only booked one night here. It is about 15 minutes from downtown Hilo up the hill in the midst of a macadamia nut orchard. The complex generates its own electricity and uses solar panels for hot water. The waterfall on the property is visible from the main house, and you can hear it from all the buildings. There is a short path to the waterfall, and if the weather is good, you can swim in the pool by the falls. The breakfast includes made to order eggs and waffles with fresh local fruit. Perhaps the best part of staying at a bed and breakfast is meeting the other guests. In our guest building, they were all friendly and quite willing to share their Big Island travel experiences.

Kulaniapia Falls

Saturday morning we had breakfast in the common room and packed up, driving to Hilo airport, our check-in point for the Blue Hawaiian Helicopter Tour. We flew in an EcoStar, a helicopter that holds the pilot plus six guests. The weather was overcast, but we were hoping for the best.

Pu'u O'o Vent

Pu'u O'o Vent: The site of the current volcanic activity.
Lava Hot Spots

Lava hot spots zoomed in from the helicopter.
The tour was approximately 50 minutes. We saw both sun, clouds, and even some rain. Our pilot gave us breathtaking views of Kilauea Volcano, the Pu’u ‘O’o vent (the source of most current volcanic activity), and close-ups of lava meeting ocean. The sun and rain even combined to give us a beautiful rainbow!

Lava Coastline
Volcanic activity builds new land!
Lava Meets the Sea with Steam
Lava meets the sea in a steamy brew.
Creeping Lava Flow
Hot lava creeping along older flows.

Next: Lava Viewing

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Travels on the Big Island: Exploring Waipi'o Valley

Part 2
(View Part I—Overview)

Hawaii’s Big Island is the largest of the Hawaiian Islands, and it is still growing. Recent volcanic activity has added landmass to the island. The Big Island is also the youngest island. It consists of five shield volcano peaks, with two, Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, reaching over 13,000 feet. Kilauea in the southeast part of the island is very active, with current eruptions occurring continuously since 1985.

We arrive late in Kona from the mainland, rent our car, and check into the King Kamehameha Hotel in Kailua. (Kona is the name of the airport, Kailua is the name of the town, and Kailua-Kona is the name the post office uses. Confusing, but basically Kailua and Kona refer to the same town.) The hotel is well located right at the Kailua Pier where the famous Ironman Triathlon begins, but we don’t particularly like the hotel. It’s big, impersonal, and a bit old. However, our room is comfortable, recently refurbished, and we have a partial view of the bay. We walk to downtown Kailua and pick a nice café for breakfast overlooking the bay. We notice a cruise ship outside the harbor, and soon, small tether boats begin depositing scores of cruise ship people in Kailua. We decide to hit the road. Before leaving, we briefly tour ‘Ahu’ena Heiau, the personal temple of King Kamehameha the Great. He lived here for the last seven or so years of his life.

‘Ahu’ena Heiau, the personal temple of King Kamehameha the Great

We drive north to Highway 190 towards Waimea (called Kamuela by the postal service to distinguish it from Oahu’s Waimea). Waimea is a bustling town that sits in the valley between the extinct Kohala and Mauna Kea volcanoes. We pick out a likely place to have lunch—Merriman’s. Paul has a great nose for finding excellent places to eat and we are not disappointed. We also find a Foodland and purchase future lunch supplies and a cheap Styrofoam cooler.

Tip: Be sure to sign up for their discount card. We saved over $60 on our purchases. You just need to give them a phone number and spout the number in any other Foodland.
Great decision! We made our lunches for the next week, saving time and money. My Swiss Army knife came in very, very handy.

We continue winding our way to the small village of Honoka’a, where we secured a cute little house for two nights: Hale Hamakua Guesthouse. This house has a wonderful ocean view from the backyard, full kitchen, living room, three bedrooms, and bath. It is a block from the town and the town’s only real restaurant, Café Il Mondo, a pizzeria that makes excellent thin-crust pizzas. You bring your own wine.

Why stay in Honoka’a for two nights? Honoka’a is a mere 7 miles from alluring Waipi’o Valley where we planned an early morning horseback ride in the valley, followed by an afternoon hike. Staying in Honoka’a enables us to avoid the long drive from either the Kohala resorts, Kona, or the Hilo area.

Waipi’o Valley

Waipio Valley Coastline

We signed up with Na’alapa Stables for their horseback riding tour. The scariest part of the entire trek is the ride in their 4-wheel drive van down the 25% grade road. As we clambered into the van, our driver told us:

leave the sliding door open and don't use the seatbelts
I, however, dutifully fastened my seatbelt. He promptly told me to unfasten it. I exclaimed, ‘I thought you were kidding’. Apparently, no. If the breaks or transmission fails, your only hope of survival is to jump out of the van. I realized that there was no way all 9 of us could possible exit that van before the van began its descent to the valley floor—the short way.

Horseback riding in Waipi'o Valley

Thankfully, we successfully made the trip to the valley floor, forded a few streams, and arrived at the stables. We were assigned mounts, took sips of water, tied our rain gear onto the saddles, clutched our cameras, and began our tour. We passed taro farms, forded streams, and saw waterfalls. Waipi’o Valley is truly a sacred, magical place.

Taro Patch in Waipi'o Valley

A few hours later, we finished our ride (it was a walk, really). We declined the return ride to the top of the valley so that we could commence with the second part of our Waipi’o adventure—hiking the switchback on the far side of the valley. We brought daypacks with water and lunch and headed to the valley’s black sand beach to reach the trailhead.

The most interesting tree in Waipi'o Valley

We walk to the beach and find a sheltered place for lunch. The beach is quite windy and the surf looks rough. After lunch we remove our hiking boots to ford the Waipi’o River. It’s moving pretty fast. We enter a place near the mouth, but a bit back from the raging surf. The water reaches past our knees and I grab Paul’s hand to make sure I don’t fall. I’m worried about my camera and my new zoom lens. Once successfully across, we make our way to the far side of the valley and find the trailhead to the next valley, Waimanu Valley. We hike to the top of the third switchback and have an amazing view of the coastline, the valley, the hazardous road into the valley, and the back of the valley. The sun has come out and we just take it all in.

Protea Flower, Waipi'o Valley

The return hike is uneventful, with fording the river the most challenging part. And, we must hike up that 25% grade road. It’s like being at the gym, doing a workout. But we feel good (and tired) when we’ve arrived.

From the switchback trail, looking at Waipi'o Valley's black sand beach

Back in Honoka’a, we decide to check out the town’s only bar, the Hamakua Sports Bar. We were really hoping for a cold brew and a hamburger. We get the cold brew, but the only food consists of hot dogs, wings, chips and salsa, and popcorn. We went for the hot dogs because we were too tired to cook! The beer was good, the bartender was great, and we even met the owner. Honoka’a people are very friendly! And yes, they even have several TVs for sporting events.

Next: Helicopter Ride

Travels on the Big Island: Reflections on a recent trip

Part I—Overview

The Big Island of Hawaii is a magical place, in part because nature provides countless wonders (active volcano action, old and new lava flows, beaches, mountains, rainforests, and stunning views) and in part because the Big Island is the birthplace and home of King Kamehameha I (1758-1819), who united the islands under one ruler. As the Arthurian-like story goes, at age 14 Kamehameha was able to lift a large stone. This presaged his royal ascension and his ability to unite the islands and rule them as one.

Rough surf on the Hakuma coast

The Big Island is the largest Hawaiian island, yet its population is less than 200,000. It boasts wonderful beaches, and offers hiking, snorkeling, surfing, and lush vegetation. After reading and researching online, we came up with the short list of what we wanted to do.

Exploring Waipi’o Valley—Helicopter ride—Lava Viewing—Hiking in Volcano—Snorkeling—Body Boarding—Photography

We’ve been to the Big Island two times previously, but both trips were many, many years ago (don’t make me say how many!). For this trip, we planned on renting a car and staying in bed and breakfast type places. The last two nights we wanted to splurge and stay in a fancy resort. We had our eye on staying in the Mauna Kea Beach Resort. Many years ago when we were young and poor and camping, we had brunch at the Mauna Kea and vowed that one day we would return as guests (even though today a two-egg breakfast costs $20).

Hibiscus Flower

Bed and breakfast type places may not be for everyone. But, staying in such places is a great way to meet like-minded people, the hosts are typically friendly and helpful, and communal breakfasts are an inspiring way to start the day.

Surf at Hapuna Beach, Kohala Coast

With only a few weeks to plan, we began by redeeming some American Airline miles to secure our flight between San Diego and Kona. We departed January 18 and returned on January 27.

The bad: we arrive late (9:15pm) and it will be dark. The solution? Get a hotel fairly close to the airport for that first night. The flight from Los Angeles to Kona is approximately 6 hours. At this time of year there is a two-hour time change, so 9:15pm will feel more like 11:15pm.

The good: our return flight doesn’t depart Kona until 10:45pm, giving us an entire last day to play, have dinner, turn in the rental car, and arrive at the airport. The return flight (from Kona to Los Angeles) is approximately 5 hours.

Next, figure out where we need to be so that we can loosely circumnavigate the island (by driving) in a clockwise direction. By staying in different places, we will see more of the island and drive less. We minimize backtracking. We decide to stay two days in a place whenever possible so that we can easily participate in early-morning activities without having to get up super early and drive a long way.

Surfer at Waipi'o Valley's black sand beach

Our final itinerary includes six different accommodation locations: 3 for 2 nights and 3 for one night.

Next: Exploring Waip’io Valley