Hawaii (The Big Island)

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Saturday – Arrival

Had to get Covid tested within 72 hours of takeoff, so we took care of that on Wednesday. Negative results came back within a few hours of the test. No real problems once we got off the plane, other than a fairly slow-moving line to get through the Covid checkpoint. It was very hot and humid at the outdoor airport, which I took a great bit of comfort in, being used to the cool, dry bay area climate. Picked up our rental car and headed to Kona for lunch. Ended up eating poke at Umekes Fish Market & Grill, and was surprised by how good the food was and how friendly and laid back the service was.

After stopping at Safeway for PB&J supplies for lunches, we headed on the 2.5hr drive to the Hilo side of the island. We stopped at Punalu’u Beach along the way, just to make sure we didn’t miss a opportunity to see a black sand beach (though we ended up seeing a couple more on this trip). It was quite crowded, but there was a nice pond full of water hyacinths and lilies. Some trails behind the pond gave us our first taste of the lush jungles on this side of the island, and let us balance and jump across old wooden bridges with most of the planks missing and/or rotting. We saw an Indian mongoose here, which I learned was an invasive species common throughout the island. We also saw a sea turtle (honu) in the tidepools.

After the beach we checked into our AirBnB, a small cottage tucked in a lushly landscaped property about 20 minutes north of Hawaii Volcanoes NP. We were immersed in the sounds of the jungle throughout the night, in particular the coqui frogs. These frogs are astonishingly loud (especially for their small size) and have apparently overtaken the island’s jungles over the last couple decades, wreaking havoc on resident’s eardrums and property values where the frogs are. By now they seem to be ubiquitous throughout the forest areas. They did not keep us from getting a good night sleep, though – we found the sounds relaxing.

Sunday – Volcanoes

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Our first full day on the island was devoted to exploring Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. First we hiked a short distance along the Crater Rim trail to see Kilauea, the largest volcanic crater in the park, and the one with the most recent lava flow. We also did the devastation trail for a up-close view of the Pu’u Pua’i Cinder Cone. Then we drove straight to the end of the chain of craters road, so we could start at the bottom, slowly working our way back up, and hopefully the worst of the crowds by going in the reverse direction.

We saw the sea arch and the dramatic black cliff coastline, where we stopped for PB&J’s for lunch. I explored some of the immense lava fields and we hiked to the Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs. A storm was blowing in and we got a little wet on the rushed hike back to the car. We headed to the Thurston Lava Tubes, did the short loop there and saw our first Kaimani Pheasant family. Then, against Claire’s better judgement, I decided we would end the day with a hike the Kilauea Iki crater loop trail, which crosses the crater and then climbs up and back around the back side, giving dramatic views from the top. The rolling fog made for great, dramatic photography, and the rain mostly held off. It was pretty late in the day at this point, and the weather was pretty wet, so it was getting rather cold. By this point, the crowds had let the park and we were basically alone on the trail.

By the time we left the park the only place open for dinner in Volcano (the only town on the way to our AirBnB) was a pizza joint where we unfortunately were too late for a seat. While waiting for our take-out pizza, a woman and her kid were having trouble with her truck and needed some help. Her tire had gone flat but the wheel had rusted onto the hub. Though she had AAA, they had her on hold for an hour at this point and her phone was dying and she was giving up on getting their help. After some banging with a 4×4 we found lying nearby, we eventually got the wheel loose and her spare mounted, but even then the spare was very low on air. She wasn’t comfortable driving by herself to the nearest open service station, about 30 minutes down the road, with her low tire and no charge on her cell phone. She also seemed a little apprehensive of the one other man who was helping her with the tire situation, and having another woman with me certainly helped her feel more secure. So, we followed her to the service station to make sure she made it safely, and was able to get air in her tire and a car phone charger.

Monday – Waterfalls & Hilo

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The next day was dedicated to chasing waterfalls and exploring the city of Hilo. We saw the cascading waterfalls on the Wailuku River, including Rainbow Falls, Boiling Pots, and LK Falls. We saw a family of feral hogs running around the streets. Then we hiked to a beautiful, secluded place in the lush jungle where a few rivers converge forming an expanse of waterfalls and swimming holes. This area is on state reserve land, and its existence is somewhat of an open secret. It’s still not widely known among tourists, and the lack of good parking or a marked trailhead, the ‘No Trespassing’ signs, and the rather rough trail keep it from getting too crowded. Though there were probably 4-5 other groups in the area, it was such an expansive place that you could easily find a swimming hole out of view of anyone else. This was definitely one of my favorite parts of the trip. It was quite the experience to hike through a lush jungle, come out to a amazing view of converging waterfalls, and find our very own swimming hole underneath cliffs draped with vines and cascading waterfalls as far as you could see. As we were hiking back around mid-day, there were definitely more small groups heading there, so perhaps it gets more crowded in the afternoon.

After our swim, we headed back to Hilo for lunch a Cafe 100 and dessert at Kula Shaved Ice (where Claire first fell in love with Acai bowls). We decided to finish our day with one of Hawaii’s famous black sand beaches, but we didn’t feel like another long hike, so we drove to Kehena Beach for the evening, where we relaxed in the sand, and I swam in the saltwater, pondering the existence of these volcanic islands in the middle of a massive ocean, and gazing out upon thousands of miles of nothing but blue water.

Tuesday – Coffee/Vanilla/Chocolate Farm

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This was a nice change of pace, replacing long hikes with a delicious and very educational tour of a farm that grows three of the best things on this planet – chocolate, vanilla, and coffee. We learned about the history of the industry on the island while sampling fresh coffee and chocolate until we were nearly sick. We toured the coffee, cacao, and vanilla orchards. Claire pollinated a vanilla flower, and we and got to see all the steps that go into taking cacao from the tree and turning it into chocolate (apparently the beans are fermented!). We got to make a batch of our own, grinding the beans and adding sugar (and coffee in one batch), and tempering and molding the chocolate. We also learned that a byproduct of chocolate is cacao juice, a deliciously sweet, relatively viscous juice that tasted unlike anything I’ve had before. You could taste that it was from the same plant as chocolate, but it had a completely unique taste. I really wish we could buy this juice commercially, but apparently it isn’t profitable enough to be worth the farmers’ time. You can also allow it to ferment, forming a bubbly chocolate ‘champagne’. Claire made some vanilla extract while I was sipping this juice. This farm also grow a variety of other tropical treats on a small scale, such as cloves, avocados (the biggest ones you’ve ever seen), and various other fruits and nuts, and the owner of the farm definitely did not send us home empty handed.

We returned to Hilo for lunch at Pineapple’s Restaurant, where I had a Mai Tai flight to help me recover from all the chocolate I ate that morning (lol). We spent the afternoon exploring some other waterfalls and shorter hikes, including Akaka Falls, 6 Tons, and a quick hike to see Onomea Bay.

Wednesday – Waipi’o Valley by Horse

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On Wednesday we packed up to drive over to the Kona side of the island. We took the north route to see Waipi’o Valley on the way. We stopped at What’s Shakin’ for lunch, then we took a horseback tour of the valley, and learned of the (mostly subsistence) Taro farming that is responsible for all of the flooded fields in the valley. We stopped at a brewery in Waimea for lunch, and then headed to our new AirBnB in the forested foothills of Hualalai, overlooking the Kona district. This cottage was a very nice and private, and even featured a resident family of kaimani pheasants that would come eat seed out of your hands. The coqui frogs were definitely around here too.

Thursday – Beach and Luau

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I planned on keeping this day relatively free so we could relax and recharge. We went to Beach 69 to lay out and so some snorkelling. This was my first time testing my new underwater camera setup (the housing and wide-angle lens for my TG-6). It was definitely a learning experience, dealing with multiple interfaces for air bubbles to stick and interfere with the shot, but I got a few good shots in. My goal was to get everything dialed in here before our manta ray night snorkel scheduled the next day. This was also Claire’s first time snorkeling, and she was getting her gear dialed in and fitted properly. The water was calm enough, but it definitely got a little windier and choppier as the day went on. There was plenty of marine life, including an underwater encounter with a honu. This beach was not unreasonably crowded.

We ended the day with a luau (Legends of Hawaii at the Hilton Waikoloa Village). It was a good experience that I felt like I needed to do once, and the food and drinks were fine. Probably wouldn’t go out of my way to do another one though, since it felt inauthentic and commercialized (not that I expected anything different).

Friday – Kona & Manta Rays

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Friday was another relaxing day. We decided to get brunch in downtown Kona, at Kalikala. We did some shopping at Ali’i Gardens Market, and then went to Kahalu’u Beach for some more snorkelling. This beach was very crowded, and the water clarity was not as great, however there was an abundance of reef fish. We grabbed a late-afternoon meal at Da Poke Shack before checking in for our manta ray night snorkel.

To swim with the mantas at night, we took a boat out to a spot near the airport where the airport lights (and now, lots of lamps brought by all the dive boats) attract plankton to the surface, which in turn attract the mantas. Both snorkelers floating above and divers sitting below get incredible views of the mantas as they gracefully feast on the plankton within a couple feet of your eyes.

Saturday – Kayaking and Freediving

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On our last full day on the island, we rented kayaks to explore Kealakekua Bay. After a short but fairly strenuous paddle across the bay, we did some more snorkelling and I did a bit of freediving. This was by far the best snorkelling spot. It was not very crowded – the only access is by boat, or the fairly long Captain Cook Memorial trail, which kept crowds to a minimum. We shared the area with only a few other boaters and one party-boat of snorkelers. The reef was also the most interesting here, and seemed to be the healthiest of the sites we dove this week. There was lots of life, including the typical assortment of reef fish, some crazy starfish, and a moray eel. There were also lots of varying depths to explore here. Plenty of shallow reefs for snorkeling around, but also some deeper spots that allowed me to see some new environments.

After our paddle we grabbed lunch from Shaka Tacoz and went back to Kona for some shopping and a final Acai bowl. Then it was time to head back to the AirBnB to get ready to leave the next day. We picked up some pizza from Kona Crust and enjoyed our last evening packing relaxing in our cottage, where Netflix introduced me to my next binge show, Manifest, a great show to watch the evening before a long flight.

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