9 Sep 2015

Exploring the Big Island

Sheryl and I had our first anniversary approaching and so we set off for the Big Island of Hawaii to celebrate. I had lived on Oahu, at Schofield Barracks, as a kid aged 7-10, and have returned to that island several times over the years. But I had not been to the Big Island or, indeed, any of the others. Sheryl had visited Kauai and Maui several times but had also never been to Hawaii. So, this was truly an adventure for us – a new place! We had a weeklong trip planned and were going to be staying on the west side, the Kohala and Kona coasts. It was a cool Colorado day as we drove to Denver International Airport for our Tuesday flight. The trip out was smooth sailing through San Francisco and on to Kona International Airport, just outside the largest west island town, Kailua-Kona. We came in from the north over the coast about 7:30 pm on St Patrick’s Day. Sheryl waited for our baggage as I hopped the shuttle to get our rental car. A new Nissan Altima was ours for the week and I swung back over to the terminal, picked up Sheryl, and we headed out to the main road. It was 20 miles up Highway 19, and we turned left at the first traffic light, into the Waikoloa Beach complex. Our hotel for the next six nights was the world’s largest Hilton, designed in the 1980s in partnership with Disney (and so there is a monorail tram and canal boats to carry you from place-to-place within the village). We checked in and took the tram to our hotel building – the Palace Tower. The room was nice though fairly standard. It was now past 9 o’clock and thus past 1 am Boulder time.

Wednesday morning dawned gloriously. I know that because I was awake at 4 am and standing on the lanai with a cup of steaming black Kona coffee as the sun rose over Mauna Kea just to the east. At 13,796 feet Mauna Kea is 117 feet taller than her more massive neighbor to the south, Mauna Loa. From their seabed floor base, these are the tallest mountains on earth at over 32,000 feet. We saw Mauna Loa only once during the entire week, mainly because from our angle at the beach, she was masked by the 8,000 foot Hualalai Volcano, but also because mists often shrouded her. Meanwhile, Mauna Kea greeted us nearly every day and stayed visible nearly the entire time. A week before we arrived, there had been a massive snowstorm on her and she kept a solid white cap during or trip. People are known to ski her in the morning and scuba dive later in the day. Anyway – it was a beautiful sunrise to start our first day on the island! We headed out the door by 7 and explored the vast Hilton property, the nearby beach at Anaeho’omalu Bay (known colloquially, for some reason, as “A Bay”), saw the upscale shopping in the Queens’ Marketplace and Kings’ Shops, and had a workout in the gym. On our walk we saw a number of feral cats that seemed to have the run of the property and appeared to be in fine fettle. Signs at A-Beach said they were cared for by a local group. They lived in symbiosis with a number of mongoose, as well. These sleek little creatures had been imported to kill rats decades before and have proliferated. We also saw feral goats of all shapes and descriptions on the island, and signs along the highway gave us warning of upcoming donkey and cattle crossing sites. Additional wild animals we saw on the trip included the Hawaii state bird – the large Nene, other fowl, geckos and, of course, numerous fish, turtles and whales and dolphins. At 10:30 we met with one of the concierges who explained the amenities at the Village and gave us some good advice on things to see and do, once we had told her our interests. Then we slipped into our swimsuits and went down to the beach and pools on the property. During lunch, we overlooked the large inlet blocked off for dolphins and watched the trainers put about 10 through their paces. Some of the trainers and dolphins swam into another area and met up-close with several groups of kids; some pretty cool displays. Regardless, it wasnot as cool as the display Sheryl and I got as we observed the four dolphins left to their own devices: mating. We then spent the afternoon reading books and soaking up the bright Hawaiian sun next to the water. I went to get us some tropical drinks at one point and overheard two locals talking – a man had been bitten just hours previous by a 12 foot Tiger shark just a few miles up the coast; he had been evacuated to Honolulu. Hmm – we were going scuba diving the next day. Food for thought. At 6 we went to Kirin, a Chinese restaurant and sat on the upstairs deck outside as the sun set beautifully, sinking like a huge lozenge in the blue Pacific. And then off to an early slumber as we caught up on our travel lag.ba0ec5_eac2b2e83cbe46c09b8e767c2a3d36afOn Thursday morning we worked for several hours (our only departure from our ‘vacation’ this week) on our plans for upcoming expeditions to Washington DC and Antietam/Gettysburg, as well as our Cuba reconnaissance for our first expedition there this fall. Then, for lunch, we ate outside at The 3 Pigs, a solid restaurant in Kings with a celebrity chef from one of the Food Network shows. In the early afternoon we drove 10 miles up into the highlands to Waikoloa Village and shopped at the Market, which had a Whole Foods feel to it. We picked up fruit (pineapple, mango, kiwi), cheese & salami, hummus, crackers, carrots and yogurt; we figured we may as well eat breakfast in the room and save on the exorbitant resort pricing. After dropping these back in our room refrigerator, we headed back south on Highway 19 towards the airport. Sheryl had arranged for us to make two scuba dives this afternoon and evening. We checked in at Kona Dive Shop in Kailua-Kona, showed our paperwork and signed theirs. Then back up the highway for about five miles to Honokohau Harbor. We pulled in, parked and walked over to our boat where we were warmly greeted by the crew of four and the other eight divers. After a brief intro, we were underway. Enroute to the dive site a few miles to the south, we encountered a sea turtle and stopped to observe a pod of Humpback whales about a 100 meters to starboard. Pretty darn neat to watch their huge backs glide up and out, the expression of their breath, and their slide back under, finished by the flukes. Soon we arrived at our dive location a few hundred yards offshore and anchored to a buoy. Other boats joined us with their divers. This was a popular site. Our last dive had been in the Denver Aquarium in November and it had been a year since our previous open ocean dive; and we are, still, novice divers. I say this to preface our dive experience this day. For one, I sucked down beaucoup oxygen on the first dive and was back up at the surface about 12 minutes before Sheryl! But it was a great 45 minute dive and we saw some amazing stuff, most wonderfully a big Manta ray. One minute there was nothing above me and the next there she was, seemingly gliding without waving her big wing-like fins. One thing we found on the dives, though, was that there did not seem to be as much wildlife or beautiful coral as we had experienced in Belize the previous March. Still, though, it is an amazing thing to dive 60 feet below the surface. Back on the boat, we had a dinner and relaxed for an hour till it was dark. A few more boats arrived for the night Manta dive. The idea for these dives is to place lights on the seabed and each diver also holds an underwater flashlight. The divers are weighted more than usual so that you sit still on the ocean bottom and shine the lights above you. This attracts the plankton and krill that the Manta then swoop in to feed upon. Or so goes the theory. And, I guess, it usually works. But not tonight. About 60 divers were in the proximity, the bottom was well lit and plankton and krill swarmed. But the Manta did not come. Oh well. After a 30 minute wait, we simply continued the dive and looked about the area. Very cool to swim that deep in the dark with nothing but a little flashlight. Our favorite sighting was a large spotted Moray eel. He came out of his hole and hunted about 50 yards. We followed. He finally snuck up on a large Yellow Tang fish, struck and immobilized him, and then slowly ate him whole – from the head first. Nature at its best! We also heard, very loudly, the songs of the Humpback whales this night – booming through the miles of ocean. After the hour long night dive we returned to the surface and cruised back to the harbor. Diving is pretty exhausting for us newbies, so we crashed as soon as got back to our room.

It was another beautiful day on Friday but we spent a good chunk of it in a resort vacation home sales pitch. Good folks, though, and some nice condos. Since we didn’t get out much today, let me describe the area that the Waikoloa Beach complex occupies and the Hilton itself. The hotel has three different lodging towers and an attached convention center. Canals and trains connect everything and it all surrounds a lagoon with ocean beach and several large pools. There are over 10 restaurants, including Chinese, Japanese and Italian along with American and Hawaiian. Most have spectacular views over the Pacific at sunset. All along the open air walkways are pieces of art – paintings, ceramics, statues, mosaics, tapestries and more. And much of it is original and hundreds of years old. The Village has been carved out of the landscape over the past 35 years and is now lush and green. But the surrounding miles and miles of the Kohala Coast are dominated by black lava fields. The volcanoes to the east have created this field over the millennia, with recent flows in the 19th and 20th centuries. But the enclaves along the water are like green jewels. Tonight, we sat on the patio at the Italian restaurant, Dona & Toni’s, and watched another glorious sunset. After the golden orb had set, we did get a few sprinkles of rain – the only we had on the west coast during the entire week, and not enough to have us take shelter. We had an early night of it as we had a big day planned for the morrow!DCIM100MICROWe woke early on Saturday and wished each other a wonderful first anniversary! It has been an amazing journey and we have packed five years of adventures into this first year; and we have no intention of slowing down! We packed some hiking shoes with us and hopped in the car for a drive down the coast. Highway 19 gave way to Highway 11 at Kailua-Kona and we continued another 20 miles south on it. The black lava fields of the coastal plain gave way to cool mountain air as the road climbed 3,000 feet into the famed Kona coffee plantations. Roadside coffee shops were everywhere and the tourist-centricity of the Kohala coast was replaced by a more ‘authentic’ Hawaiian experience (at least through the cultural amalgamation of the past 150 years). Finally, we turned off and descended the steep escarpment on a switchback road that took us down to sea-level and brought us to the edge of Kealakekua Bay. This is a sacred place to natives and means ‘pathway to the gods.’ We pulled into a small parking lot in a bayside park and a local man asked if we intended to snorkel or kayak. We said we’d like to kayak and he offered a very reasonable price for a couple of hours and, so, he jumped in our car and we drove to a nearby sheltered cove, Ke’ei Bay. He and his two partners there had about 10 kayaks and we picked one out – a two person boat. I have kayaked once before, on a Virginia lake, and Sheryl had never. Even so, we were soon on the water and paddling out of the cove and through the crashing surf of the Pacific. Turning right, northward, we were soon in the broad mouth of Kealakekua Bay proper. To our left, the wide open ocean stretched to the horizon (and New Zealand!) and over a mile across the bay stood a lonely stretch of beach that was our objective. As we paddled, Sheryl in front, I kept glancing below us (the clear waters allowed me to see down 40 feet to the bottom) and to the open ocean, as we had been warned of strong currents off the island that take unsuspecting folks out to sea. No worries, however, and our kayaking was a smooth cruise as we found our rhythm. Just off the north shore, we pulled in close and I hopped out, as boats are not allowed to land on this beach. But there is a monument here that I wanted to visit. As I walked up to it, Sheryl paddled offshore and observed the fish. The famed British explorer, Captain James Cook, had ‘discovered’ these islands in 1778 and returned in early 1779 for supplies. A dispute broke out with natives and Cook was killed on this spot in the ensuing melee. A monument in his memory was erected about 100 years later. The naval officer that I write about, British Admiral Sir George Berkeley, had served with Cook off Newfoundland in 1767. I slipped back into the kayak and we began paddling back across the bay, but this time closer to shore, to see a large pod of Spinner dolphins. We soon found them, about 100 yards off-shore and we spent a wonderful ten minutes following them as they cruised back and forth across this part of the bay. A lone snorkeler joined us and swam among them, too. Afterwards, we stroked our way back across Kealakekua, rounded the headlands and re-entered Ke’ei Bay. We had survived a three-mile open ocean kayaking adventure! Our next stop, just a couple of miles down the coast, was the province of ancient Hawaiian princes. Now a US National Historic Park, Pu’uhonua O Honaunau is an evocative experience of old Hawaii as it contains royal property, and a place of refuge for warriors and others. A 1,000 foot long wall, 10 feet high and many feet thick, separates the two and was built in the mid-16th century. Another thing the visit taught us, through a discussion with a park ranger about the name, Pu’uhonua O Honaunau, is that Hawaiian words never have two consonants side-by-side! From the park headquarters, after walking the grounds, we took the 1871 Trail for a two mile hike along the coast – past lava fields, a lava sled (where ancient princes raced down to the sea), abandoned temples, feral goats, and a spectacular lava cliff, seemingly frozen in mid-flow, that sparked remarks from visitors in the 1800s like Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson. At the end of the hike lies the ruins of one of Hawaii’s last aboriginal villages, finally abandoned in the 1930s. It was an amazing trek; and we were the only tourists on it. It was now mid-afternoon and we drove back up the winding coastal road towards Highway 19. Halfway up, we pulled off onto Painted Church Road and soon found ourselves in the lot of St Benedict’s Roman Catholic Church. A Belgian priest, Father John Velghe, arrived in 1899 and created a beautiful little church, filling its interior walls with his wall-sized paintings of various biblical themes. A gentle rain began as we sat inside and made it even more charming. From there, it was back up the coastal highway, through the Kona coffee plantations and back through the lava desert to Waikoloa Bay. We showered and dressed in the clothes we wore on our first Belize wedding night a year ago. We drove about nine miles up the road to Hapuna Beach which, by the way, is where the man had been bitten by the Tiger shark three days ago – he is doing fine, with some nice bites on his left arm. He punched the shark in the gills and it swam off. He described the shark hitting him like a truck. For our visit to this beach, we enjoyed a fantastic anniversary sunset dinner at the Coast Grille. Now, that was a good day!
Sunday was a quiet one for us. After breakfast in bed we headed off with fins and snorkels to a nearby beach (about six miles up the coast) in Puako Bay. This is off the tourist track and the beach we went to is called “The 69s” because you park at the wooden power pole numbered 69 and walk down to the surf. It was a gorgeous day and we set our towels in the shade (we have come a long way from our teenage years of slathering on the baby oil while broiling in the sun!) and read for a bit. I finished a book on the plague in 1666 England and started a re-read of Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm.’ Sheryl was reading ‘The Light We Cannot See.’ Then we slipped on our snorkeling gear and explored the waters by the lava rocks just off the beach. More fish here than we had seen on the scuba dive a few nights previous. In the afternoon we headed back to the Village and had an early dinner and drinks at Tropics Ale House, while we watched the Notre Dame women’s team victory that catapulted them to the NCAA Sweet Sixteen. Just before sunset we walked out to Buddha Point (a large statue of Siddhartha sits there) and watched the incredible light and color show of the sinking orb. Then, just after the setting, a pod of Humpbacks just off the point began surfacing and diving. Pretty cool. Another early night to bed as our biggest day yet awaited tomorrow.

Monday proved to us that Hawaii is not only the Big Island of this chain but is, indeed, a big island! We set off early, by 8 am on what we knew would be a long day. We first drove north on 19 along the coastal lava plain and then turned at Kawaihae and followed 19 up from the ocean and onto the high northern plains. Over the next 20 miles, we continually gained elevation until we were at nearly 3,000 feet when we entered Waimea. With 10,000 people, it is the largest town in central Hawaii and the center of paniolo cowboy culture. Beef cattle had been introduced in 1793 as a gift from King George III to Kamehameha I. The cattle soon proliferated and threatened to overrun the district. An American whaler had recently left ship in Hawaii and was hired by the king to take control of the herd. John Palmer Parker of Massachusetts proved adept with horse and rifle, as well as with the arts of diplomacy (as he soon married into the royal family). Today, his land, The Parker Ranch, remains the largest private ranch in the United States (and 5th largest overall) at over 250,000 acres and over 12,000 mother cows. The entirety of the Waimea district is given over to cowboy and ranch life. It feels so different than the rest of the island. Mountains tower nearby, hillsides are covered in pines, wide open fields of green pasture stretch to the horizon, it is 10-15 degrees cooler than the coast and the ocean cannot be seen. A large statue in the center of town has a paniolo on horseback throwing his lariat to rope a steer that is crashing down an island gulch. The rider is Ikua Purdy who, along with two other paniolos, attended the 1908 Frontier Days in Cheyenne, Wyoming – the cowboy Super Bowl. The island boys wowed the crowds and won 1st and 2nd in steer roping. Continuing on Highway 19 (also known as Hawaii’s Belt Road) we dropped down off the high ground and onto the northeast coast of the island. Everything became quite lush as we were now on the wet-side of the island. While the Kohala coast, where our hotel was located, receives an annual rainfall of seven inches, the east averages 120 and the town of Mountain View receives over 200 inches! The water made for some beautiful hikes and vistas today. Our first stop was Akaka Falls just inland off the Hamakua coast. Set in a lush, jungle state park (Cecille De Mille filmed a Claudette Colbert jungle film here) the falls drop a dramatic 422 feet from Kolekole Stream into a deep pool below. Lots of visitors here on a warm, sunny day. Next up, a few miles down the road was the Hawaii Tropical Botanic Garden. To get here we traversed the four mile Pepe’ekeo Scenic Drive, across seven one-lane bridges over steep ravines next to the ocean. The park itself was stupendously beautiful, with a trail leading through over 2,000 species of trees, flowers and other plants in a gorgeous seaside location. Now it was time for lunch and so we headed into the island’s largest city, Hilo. Alongside the water, we ate a superb meal at the foodie-celebrated Hilo Bay Café. Thus fortified, it was on to our next destination – the volcano! About 35 miles south of Hilo, on Highway 11, lies Volcanoes National Park. The drive to it took us ever upward, to over 4,000 feet, and into misty regions of lush flora. Entering the park, established in 1916, we checked in at the Visitor’s Center, picked up trail maps and headed in to see Kilauea, the active volcano; the other, the massive Mauna Loa, is not currently erupting lava. The overlook of the main caldera presents and amazing sight. Suddenly, the lush growth is gone, completely gone, and what is left is a stark, moonscape for miles and miles with smoking vapor spewing forth from many hotspots. It was much, much larger than I had expected. Mark Twain wrote of it, “I have seen Vesuvius since, but it was a mere toy, a child’s volcano, a soup kettle compared to this.” An amazing vista, indeed. We then drove along its edge till we found a trailhead that would take us down closer. Parking at an overlook, we descended 400 feet through lush jungle on a muddy path until, in a blink of an eye, the rain forest disappeared and was replaced with a smoking moonscape. We were now on the floor of the solidified, yet still steaming Kīlauea Iki Crater lava lake. This particular vent last exploded in 1959, shooting geysers of molten lava 1900 feet into the air. We now set off across the ‘lake.’ The path was marked by stacked rocks about one to two feet tall, called Ahu stones. Signs instructed us not to disturb them, or make new ones; you do not want to get lost or off the trail in this crater! What a phenomenal hike across the lava lake, very rugged and beautiful in a pre-historic way. At the far end, nearly a mile away, we headed back into the rainforest and climbed back up another 400 feet and hiked back to the car. In all, it was a little over four miles and took us under two hours. We felt fortunate that it was an overcast, misty day as it made the hike much more pleasant than a sunny day in the 80s on that black rock. It was now approaching nightfall and we still had one more adventure ahead of us today – to get to the international observatory on Mauna Kea and see the sunset and the stars – supposedly one of the absolute best places on earth for both. Back down the road to Hilo and then a turn west on Highway 200; the famed “Saddle Road” cleaves the island and runs between the two massive volcanoes, Kea and Loa. As we climbed ever higher from sea-level up to over 6,600 feet at the saddle’s summit, the rain turned to a deep blanketing fog. I mean tremendously thick. Hard to believe that down below, just 20 miles away, it was a clear sunny late afternoon. The landscape appeared positively foreign. Well, there would be no sunset or stars for us tonight. So we continued down the steep western slope, past the Army post of Pohakuloa and the lands of Parker Ranch. We drove down to Waikoloa Village in the dark and stopped for dinner at the #1 TripAdvisor-rated restaurant on the west coast (of 39). Pueo’s Osteria is a wonderful Italian-Hawaiian place and the meal finished off a fantastic day that saw us drive nearly 200 miles as we took in the sights of this truly amazing island. And what changes in weather we experienced in this one day, too. We were not surprised to learn that of the 18 climate zones that exist worldwide, you can experience 16 of them right here on the Big Island! We drove back down to the coast and checked in at the Mauna Kea – the island’s first true resort hotel, opened in 1965 by Laurance Rockefeller and still a place of understated grandeur. Tonight, however, we simply collapsed into the great wonderful bed.


Dawn arrived on our final day in Hawaii and we luxuriated in it. First, we explored the hotel and found it just about perfect for a repeat vacation someday – it has, perhaps, the finest white sand beach on the island, too. After a waterside lunch, we drove the Kohala coast northward and, at Kawaihae, turned northwest along Highway 270. A mountain range inland rose just above us on the right and the blue sea beckoned just scant yards to our left. Almost immediately after we turned onto this new road, we spied Humpback whales just off the coast. Over the next six miles, we pulled over several times to watch them swim, blow, dive and, best of all, breach out of the water. Perfect. Further along, at the absolute northwest point of the island, Upolu, we saw the birthplace of King Kamehameha, the man who unified not only the Big Island but all the islands. A statue of the warrior king stands in a tranquil roadside park. There is also a stone, a little further on at Kapa’au, called Kamehameha Rock. Legend has it that the king carried this rock uphill from the beach to demonstrate his great strength. Not so long ago, a road crew was moving the rock when it fell off the back of the truck and rolled to its original location. Apparently, it did not want to be moved and the crew decided they did not want to disturb the King’s mana (or spiritual essence) and so the stone is back where it wanted to be. This part of the island was, in a previous incarnation, vast sugarcane plantations but is now an eclectic mix and includes numerous good restaurants and art galleries. What we had come for, though, was neither of those – but, instead, another hike. At the end of the road, literally, the very end of Highway 270 on the northwest of the island, lies Polulu Valley. A gorgeous, isolated vale, surrounded by tall mountain ridges that have reached all the way from the interior to the sea, Polulu presents amazing views in all directions. We hiked down the steep, ¾ mile trail, on innumerable switchbacks, till we reached the valley floor, which is bisected by a meandering stream. The beach is an amazing black sand and the waves broke nicely on it. We walked out into the surf and the water temperature, compared to the west coast of the island, was warmer and the sand extended for a hundred yards offshore instead of the rockier ones on Kohala. Our guide book, “Lonely Planet’s Discover Hawaii,” recommended against going into the surf here because of strong currents and tides, but we found it perfectly safe. Just a perfect beach! After a half hour or so, we walked up the valley a bit and then returned to the trail for the hike back out of Polulu. We then drove back to Ka’wi and turned left in the town center on Highway 250, also known as Kohala Mountain Road. Over the next 20 miles or so, as we rose in elevation from the sea to over 3,500 feet, we were treated to spectacular vistas of ocean, mountain and verdant pastures – we were heading back into cattle country. We understood why the guide book calls this the island’s best scenic drive. Descending into Waimea, we pulled up in front of the town’s social center — the Big Island Brewhaus & Tacqueria, and had a wonderful dinner of nachos and refreshing microbrew. Our flight was at 9 pm and we had to have the car turned in by 7:30 so we headed that way at sunset. It was exactly the same time as we had arrived a week previously. Wow, the days had passed ever so quickly and fully! A flight delay meant we didn’t take off till just after midnight and we saw the lights of the coast disappear as we winged our way eastward. We landed in San Francisco on a beautiful sunny NoCal morning and were soon on our way to Colorado where we were welcomed with sun and temps in the 40s. As always, we had loved our adventure but were glad to be home, as well.

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