We flew into Kona (on the west side) and out of Hilo (on the east), through Honolulu in both directions. We had scheduled a brief layover for the flight in, but T's friend DW lives in Honolulu and was only available on that day. So we pushed our flight to Kona back by a few hours, and he met us at the airport (with leis!) and shuttled us over to Waikiki, where we had Japanese food for lunch. (The restaurant accepted yen as well as dollars. There are tons of Japanese tourists in Hawaii -- it's one of their most popular vacation destinations.) Then DW had to run back to work, so T and I wandered the beach and the shopping strip. The shopping strip was your basic touristy shopping area, but the beach was gorgeous.
After a couple of hours, D picked us up and took us for dinner (more Japanese food) and then back to the airport, where we just barely made it in time for our flight to Kona.
The Kona airport is a trip. It's all outdoors, even the gate areas -- they're just seats covered over by little open-air huts. We didn't get any photos, but here's a picture that gives you the general idea. T said it reminded him of the San Diego Zoo. Anyway, we got our rental car (you really can't see Hawaii without one), drove to the condo in Kailua-Kona that would be our home base for the next few days, and crashed.
The next day was pretty lazy. We explored the condo complex, which was really nice, and walked along the coast, and picked up food for the week (the advantages of staying somewhere with a kitchen!). The condo was on the water, but there wasn't a beach -- the coast was all rocky, made up of a'a lava.
We spent hours just watching the waves crash against the rocks -- beautiful, hypnotic. Also we hit the pool, which was very nice. Basically a nice laid-back day.
The second day, Saturday, was our first big travel day, exploring the northwest quadrant of the island. First we drove up the Hawaii Belt Road to Waimea -- a drive that took us through the Big Island's desert, featuring dry grasses and lava flows that haven't seen any growth in over 200 years and even cacti -- and then over to Waipi'o Valley, which is a beautiful valley about 2000 feet below the surrounding cliffs. The road to get there drops all 2000 feet in about a mile, and our car wasn't 4-wheel drive, so we didn't even try to get down there -- we ate our lunch at a picnic area near the top, then walked a little distance down so T could get better pictures.
Next we headed back for the western coast, to check out the beach and the fancy fancy resorts, which are all on that side of the island. The east side, also known as the Hilo side, is just as beautiful as Kona, but it rains a lot more. So to guarantee fun in the sun for resort guests, all the resorts are in the desert. We wandered around the Hilton, which is pretty opulent and a tad cheesy, complete with dolphins -- as T said, they bring all of Hawaii to you, so you don't have to go bother to see the rest of Hawaii. Dinner that night was in Kailua-Kona, after which we saw an
outrageously beautiful sunset.
Sunday we took a little easier. First we visited Bay View Farm, a coffee farm and roasting operation. I tried the coffee, which was delicious, so mellow and mild, and bought a pound for work. I was also unable to resist the chocolate covered coffee beans (actually peaberries, which are whole beans that don't split when the skins are removed). Then we took a tour -- saw the coffee mill, which wasn't running because the beans don't start ripening until August, and then watched the roaster at work. (We also saw a pineapple plant! This pineapple was tiny, about a third the size of a full-grown fruit.)
Our next stop was Pu'uhonua o Honaunau, or Place of Refuge, which is a beach and a national historic park. We had lunch on the beach, which was one of my favorite places on the island.
(This one is worth checking out full size -- it's a panorama, which I took, and I think it came out quite well.)
The black rocks here are also from a lava flow, but the smoother pahoehoe lava, which is easier to walk on and explore. The waves created really awesome "tidepools" (that's sort of a misnomer, because how much water is in them really depends more on whether a wave has come that high recently -- the difference between high and low tide in Hawaii is very small), endlessly changing and fascinating to look at. I could probably have spent all day here. We also wandered around the historic part of the park, but it was crowded because they were having a cultural festival. Which was cool in its own way -- we got to see a traditional fishing expedition, and a royal procession.
Next day: snorkeling! T had picked up a cold, so he opted not to come along; it was just me at the crack of dawn, heading down to Keauhou Bay to catch a ride on the Hokuhele to snorkel in Kealakekua Bay (also known as Captain Cook's Bay, where this sea captain first landed in Hawaii, and probably also where he died). I love being on the water, so the hour cruise to get to the snorkel site -- in sight of green hillsides and water spouting from the rocky shores -- was a little slice of heaven. Then we got in the water, which was a beautiful blue, a little cloudy because of a wave surge, which actually adds to the beauty in a way, because rays of the sun catch the particulate and you can see them beaming down to the coral. It's a mixed blessing, of course, because it hurts visibility. And there were so many fish to see, all darting among the coral, plus a sea turtle resting, and, oh yeah. Dolphins. Two small pods, one of five and then later another of three. I didn't get that close to them, and for some reason I was never able to see them underwater, but I could see their fins above the water and several jumps. I'd never seen dolphins in the wild before and it was pretty amazing. Unfortunately I was already in the water and hadn't brought a waterproof camera, so no pictures. The next time I snorkel I am definitely getting an underwater disposable. This is the second time I've been snorkeling, and I just adore it. Something about being in warm water, paddling around, looking at fish and coral -- it's exhilarating and peaceful at the same time. I don't think I could ever do scuba diving; too much dependence on equipment. With snorkeling, I feel much more in control, since you can just lift your head out of the water and breathe anytime.
Anyway, when I got home T was feeling better, so we went out to find a beach to watch the sunset. Watching sunsets became a bit of a theme for us -- we both like them, and T wanted to work on his sunset photography. After consulting the guidebook, we decided on Wawaloli Beach, a bit north of Kona, which is similar to the beach at Pu'uhonua o Honaunau, but closer, and probably also a bit older because the rocks seem more worn away. We ate take-out Hawaiian for dinner, walked on the rocks, and saw our sunset. (Also, there were cats there.)
This was our last day in Kailua-Kona. The next morning, we packed up and headed for the other side of the island, with a stop at Punalu'u Black Sand Beach. This is a true black sand beach, formed when a lava flow hits the cold ocean water and immediately shatters into little tiny grains. It's difficult to describe just how cool the black sand is -- it feels more like little beads than like grains of sand, and it looks really cool against the clear clear water. (Not blue -- the sun wasn't out that day.) There are also sea turtles there, although we only saw one, basking on the sand.
And then we headed for the main event: the volcano.
Kilauea, one of the most active volcanos on earth, and possibly the only one currently erupting within easy reach of a settled area. One of it's craters, Pu'u O'o, has been producing lava almost continuously since 1983. (Check out the webcam!) But note that "almost": in one of the biggest disappointments of the trip, the crater had just finished a two-week long pause in eruption activity (the longest such pause in 10 years), and there was no lava flowing within an accessible area. Still, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is one of the most fascinating places I've ever visited, and I recommend it, even if this particular eruption dries up forever. But given how active it continues to be, I doubt that will happen any time soon.
So anyway, the park. We walked through a lava tube and then drove down Chain of Craters road, which used to lead out of the park, but now it ends abruptly, covered in lava. We stopped many times along the way, walking around lava fields and admiring views. (T took tons of lava field photos. Once he's posted his favorites, I'll share some pointers.) We also hiked a mile and a half to check out some petroglyphs (several good photos in the Flickr gallery), and then it was off to the end of the road. We walked around on the fresh lava for a bit; I didn't venture too far, but T made it out to see the ocean.
It was hard to photograph or describe the lava flows here -- all lava rock is black (in fact almost all of the rock and soil in Hawaii is black, probably because it's such young lava), but this fresher stuff is so black that it glistens, sparkles, particularly in this late afternoon light.
The next day, July 4th, we decided to start by heading north up the eastern coast to see some actual tropical rainforest, taking a gorgeous coastal road (so lush and green!) to visit 'Akaka Falls.
It rained on us almost the whole time, but it was still beautiful. Then we headed back, and after lunch in Hilo we returned to Kilauea to drive around the caldera, the top of the mountain, which is basically a large crater containing several smaller craters. One of those craters, Halemaʻumaʻu, was a lake of boiling lava for almost a hundred years, from the 1820s through 1924. It still vents steam and sulphur -- you can smell the fumes from the parking lot. More walking around on lava flows, more photographs, more breathtaking views and interesting rock formations. And then to bed, to pack; the next morning we flew out from Hilo, all return flights were uneventful.
To wrap up: it was beautiful, it was fascinating. I knew going in that the Big Island had a ton of different climates and ecosystems, but experiencing them all in person was almost bewildering -- from scrub and grass desert to tropical rainforest to sunny beaches to the chill of high mountains (Kilauea is at an elevation of over 4,000 feet) and back, in just a few days, sometimes in as little as one day. So many plants and flowers and birds -- brightly colored birds were everywhere! I wish I knew what more of them were. Given how much there was to see, it wasn't quite as relaxing as it might have been, but it was definitely fun, and I would absolutely go back.