Trip report

Hawaii - the Big Island

January 3rd - January 11th 2004

This is a text-only trip report. The pictures are over here.

Overview: This is a report of a one week trip to Hawai'i, specifically the Big Island. We spent three nights in Hilo, two in Volcano National Park, and three in Kona. I’ve been getting more and more feedback from folks who read these things while doing trip planning so increasingly that’s the audience this is geared towards.

Planning: Here are the guidebooks I found particularly useful:

Here are the guidebooks I found particularly useful:

Hawaii The Big Island Revealed - This is a seriously good book. One of the best guide books I've ever used. It has lots of cool things to do and places to go that you would never ever find on your own. Go read the Amazon reviews - they're very positive for a reason.

Snorkel Hawaii: The Big Island - Between one thing and another we ended up not needing it, but it seems like the book you want if you're serious about snorkeling.

The Birdwatcher's Guide to Hawaii - we ended up being able to find a bunch of endangered birds because of this book. It's no good for identification, just how to find them. For identification most gift shops had a nice Audubon Society book for around $10.

Day One - Flight to Kona - Drive to Hilo - First things first, we had to get there. Obviously this involved flying. Luckily Aloha flies direct from Oakland, CA (very near where I live) to Kona, HI which is on the west side of the island. The flight itself was relatively uneventful until we arrived to find that it was pouring down rain.

What you need to know is that Kona gets about 10 inches of rain in a normal year, and it was a drought year, and it shouldn’t have been raining, especially not in the middle of the day. The airport isn’t built for it - the waiting areas are outside, as an example. There are no skyways - you just get off the plane on some steps, run through the waiting area to baggage claim where luckily there’s a bit of cover. Then run across the street to where the shuttle will take you to the rental areas (which because of security are further than they used to be).

On the rental shuttle we met a family that had been on the islands for the last week and it had poured down rain every single day. This wasn’t looking good.

We wanted to start in Hilo, which is the largest town and on the other side of the island. This is mostly just a logistical thing. It seems like at some point during most trips you end up with some long drive to or from the airport. We would rather drive after arriving and not just before leaving. We drove the northern half of the loop around the island which takes about two hours. It poured the whole way. We found our hotel OK and got settled in.

Our hotel, the Dolphin Bay Hotel is a little hotel with just a few rooms. The folks running it were very helpful with directions and so forth and in the courtyard there are always hanging bananas and a bowl of papayas. This is because there’s a small jungle in the back yard. Basically there’s an area out back with some trails and a jungle. I should say at this point that Hilo gets around 200 inches of rain a year so when I say jungle I really mean it.

The reason Hilo gets 200 inches and Kona gets 10 is because there’s an enormous mountain in the middle and Kona is in the rain shadow. If you’ve been to the Olympic Peninsula near Seattle, it’s similar in that way. However even in Hilo it’s supposed to rain mostly at night, so we weren’t expecting it to be pouring down rain quite so much.

We poked around downtown a bit, got some dinner (Cafe Pesto, excellent but so slow even by their standards, they gave us and some other tables free soup to tide us over. Cafe Pesto shows up later in the report which is part of why I’m mentioning it.) got some milk and so forth, and that was day One.

Day Two - Hilo - time to start major tourist activities. It was still raining hard, but it was in the low 70s and really not that annoying. We visited a nearby waterfall (Rainbow Falls - it only has a rainbow in direct sunlight in the morning which happens so rarely even the postcards don’t show a rainbow) and then we started exploring to the south.

Some highlights included Lava Trees State Park (lava trees happen when lava hits a wet tree, and cools around it leaving a hole), driving down an absurdly narrow road that I wouldn’t have attempted except in a 4 wheel drive (with large signs saying not to leave the road because of native burial sites), driving down along the ocean (right along the ocean - in California you could never have put a road that close to the ocean except on a cliff. Apparently the tides aren’t very severe), and making our way to where the road had been wiped out by lava some years before.

It was still fairly early, so we went back to Hilo and decided to start in on the northern area. Basically this involved retracing our steps on the main road back to Kona but actually stopping and visiting things. The nice way to do it is to get off the highway as often as possible and drive on the old highway where it still exists. This involves lots of one lane stretches and narrow turns so if you don’t like that sort of thing never mind! Off of one of these stretches is the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden. It’s a very nice botanical garden - one of the nicest I’ve been to (and we’re the sort of person who visits botanical gardens). The price included free mosquito repellent, which is the first time I’ve seen that.

Now, I’ve been to a few temperate rain forests before, but never a tropical one and it was really very interesting to see all of the variety of life crammed into one valley.

Day Three - Hilo- Mauna Kea - we continued checking out the northern area, again working our way along the ring road. There are an assortment of interesting waterfalls and views. The Akaka Falls are particularly impressive. We made our way over to Honoka’a which is a nice little town and picked up lunch supplies at a market and the Mamane Bakery (wonderful muffins).

We drove over the the Waipi’o Valley Lookout. This takes a little explanation. Basically the only way into this beautiful valley is to drive down an insane road with a 25% grade. 4 wheel drive only, and your rental company will get seriously pissed. But the valley is so pretty there’s a big parking lot at the top of the drive so you can at least look out and get the idea. It’s very pretty, but we wimped out on taking the drive (and I take Old Priest Grade when it’s open for those of you who know what that means). In retrospect, if we had been there by the end of the week I was so used to crazy roads that I probably would have headed down, which would have left us with too little time to do what we ended up doing. . . so it's probably just as well.

We continued along and saw the most amazing thing - blue sky! Just a sliver, but we started driving towards the coast. Sure enough, in what was the driest part of the island, there was blue sky. It got bigger and bigger until we reached the water and actually were able to find a bit of beach and touch the water. There were Bikini Babes and everything.

However, we could also see things had cleared out enough we could see the tall peak of Mauna Kea in the center of the island with all of the observatories on it. It totally dominates the island when it’s not raining! It’s around 13,700 feet above sea level and had snow on top.

To get there, you have to violate your rental agreement, take the iffy Saddle Road (it’s a lot smoother from the Hilo side) which looks like the fast way to cross the island on the map because it goes across instead of around but actually takes about the same amount of time. Then you get on a side road to the visitors center which is at about 9,200 feet.

Now, you’ve just driven from sea level to 9,200 feet in maybe an hour, hour and a half, something like that. Then if the weather is holding you can continue up a dirt road (4 wheel drive recommended) for 5 miles, then a paved road which takes you pretty close to the summit. Finally you’ve gone up about 13,500 feet in a couple of hours and are feeling very odd indeed. It doesn’t help that we lost about 45 degrees of temperature! I highly recommend hanging out a bit at the visitors center and getting a little water and making at least some attempt to get used to the altitude before continuing.

We got there just in time to enter the Keck I dome and look through the viewing window (for non-astro geeks: it's an enormous telescope - 8 stories tall, 300 tons). They were repositioning the instrument which was extra cool. The University Of Hawaii also has a viewing window on their 88 inch scope but we just missed it. (Both close at 4:00).

Then back down the road (Oxygen! Yay!) and to Hilo. About 10 feet into the Hilo district we entered a cloud bank. That’s fine, we’d seen the sun, touched the ocean and snow in one day.

Day Four - to Volcano - time to change location. We did a few odds and ends in Hilo (Lyman Museum, which is interesting, and spent about an hour in the Kaumana Cave - really a lava tube which was a little different than the ones I’ve been in before because those were in a desert area and this one had very wet and had lots of plants until the light ran out. This is well worth doing but we found out why you bring extra flashlights when one of ours got dropped and the end popped off and the batteries fell into some cracks in the lava (we got them out eventually)).

We drove by the Mauna Loa factory (the Macadamea nut people) and went ahead and dropped in. Free samples, amazing gift shop with every Macadema nut product known to Man, and some viewing windows where you could theoretically see them working except they didn’t seem to be using any of that equipment that day. Worth visiting if you’re in the area, otherwise go to the Hilo Wal-Mart which has almost all of the products for about the same price.

In the town of Volcano we met the Woman Who Loves Food, a waitress that asked us everywhere we’d eaten on the island and in the case of Cafe Pesto (which she says everybody loves) wanted to know what we’d ordered. Luckily she approved of our choices.

Then onwards to Hawaii Volcanos National Park, so called because it has an active volcano in it. We went to the visitors center and found out that the lava wasn’t anywhere visible (it keeps wiping out the road and shifting around and you can’t always get to it) but confirmed that it was erupting from a particular vent we thought it was erupting from. This is significant because we’d asked at the hotel and they taught us how to get to an overlook (outside the park) where you can see this vent from far away. At night you can see the red from the lava. We did this and it was really pretty cool.

But before it got dark we drove around a rim drive of a large caldera. On each side were the remains of various previous eruptions in the form of various craters, vents, cracks, and way more shapes and colors of lava than I would have seen possible. And unlike the stuff I’ve seen on the mainland, some of this stuff was pretty fresh - 1982 fresh anyway. We decided to leave any serious hiking and the drive down to the ocean and the newest lava until the next day. We got dinner at Volcano House, which is an old style lodge right on the rim. That’s also where we were staying for the next two nights.

Day Five - Volcano National Park - I got up at sunrise to see and photograph the caldera. It was pretty. Then shower, breakfast buffet at Volcano House (the only option without leaving the park and driving to town), and we hit the main loop road.

This time we just hit some of the main lookouts and took advantage of the much different lighting versus the late afternoon visit yesterday to take pictures of different areas that were now well lit. We made our way down to the Chain of Craters road, that goes to the sea. Often it’s a good place to see fresh lava but we’d been warned that there wasn’t any accessible - in fact a big chunk of the backcountry was closed for the last three weeks except to geologists because they really didn’t know what the lava was up to or what it was about to do.

It’s still well worth doing - lots of different lava flows from different periods, there’s a cool hike out to some amazing petroglyphs (we saw two other groups on the hike), and views of different craters. When the road cuts through old lava strata you can really see the different types of lava all in one place.

We also took a side road in search of Nene, the endangered state bird. There are around 350-400 of them left so this isn't trivial. After 9 miles of single lane nasty road that were supposed to be a good place to look, no nene. We got out at the final overlook, went to go look out and there were two sitting on a grassy area. Cool! They’re not afraid of people (part of why they’re endangered) so we sat at a reasonable distance where we wouldn’t bother them and watched them for a bit.

We hit the snack bar at Volcano House and got a to-go lunch and went on another hike. It’s the Kilauea Iki trail. It goes into a crater that had mammoth explosions in the late 50s. It’s rain forest downhill, across a couple of miles of lava while avoiding steam vents (we had lunch in an area that didn’t have steam - it can be a bit stinky), then rain forest uphill and back around the rim to your car. We saw many birds we’d never seen before including the endangered ‘io (the only hawk native to the area - around 2,000 left), the bright red Apapane, the Kalij Pheasant which is non-native but interesting (we would later see a ton of these), and white tailed tropic birds overhead. We also heard about a billion birds in the rain forest area.

It’s an amazing contrast between the different areas - either totally lush and green or barren except for small plants in nooks and crannies. It’s around 4 miles total. Kids were doing it so it’s pretty easy if you take your time - people do it in 2-4 hours according to the books. We came in at almost exactly 3 hours. I coated myself with SPF 44 sunscreen, and still got a sunburn, so watch out!

By the end of day five I’d taken 1,350 pictures total. I would take around 2,500 by the end of the eighth day.

Day six - to Kona - the two goals of day six were to clean up anything we hadn’t done in Volcano National Park and to drive to Kona, seeing sights along the way.

The first order of business was Thurston Lava Tube, which is kind of a lava tube for tourists. It’s actually lit and they’ve cleaned the floor up and there’s almost no interesting surface features - it’s just a big huge tube. But at the exit, there’s a gate that goes to the second half - which requires flashlights, good shoes, etc. It requires a little scrambling over rocks and so forth but it’s a relatively easy tube. We didn’t run into a single person while going through it. It was a pretty decent tube - lots of interesting features on the ceiling and so forth.

The second thing in the park was that we’d learned that while they made you turn around at what used to be the parking for the sea arch on Chain of Craters road, you could actually park, march a half mile down the road, and hit lava from April 2003 (This was Jan 04 so quite fresh). Then you could hike a marked 1/2 mile trail over this relatively fresh, undisturbed lava and see some of the more delicate features that get beaten up (braids of lava) as well as some half buried road signs and so forth. So we drove down to the end of the road and did this short hike which was a lot of fun.

Leaving the park we swung through a local golf course that sometimes has nene. No luck. We took a short nature trail in Bird Park. We saw some birds but nothing wildly exciting. Still a nice walk though. Then we left the park proper and headed down the road.

One place we stopped was the lovely Punalu’u black sand beach, which also has the interesting feature that Hawaiian Green turtles sometimes haul themselves to bask in the sun. Sure enough, one was on the beach and another hauled itself out in a bit. Lovely animals! They're considered "threatened" by the US, green sea turtles in general are considered endangered internationally.

Another place we stopped was South Point, which is as far south as you can go in the US despite what anybody in Florida says. It’s quite lovely and worth visiting other than the novelty factor.

We eventually arrived in Kona in rush hour (actually pretty bad considering) and found our hotel the Kona Seaside Hotel . This was basically an ideal hotel for us - not too expensive (major AAA discount) right next to the walking area near the bay. My only complaint is that they don't have anywhere near enough parking spaces. We ended up parking in a public lot nearby two of the three nights.

Day Seven - Kona to Kohala and back - I should say that the weather had been getting better and better, and by now it was really quite nice. We headed north to fill in the northwest part of the island. We had originally intended to visit this area a few days ago when we had our first good day of weather and decided we'd better do Saddle Road while the weather was good.

We headed up to the viewpoint above Pololu Beach which is lovely. There's a steep trail to the bottom but we were a little worn out by this point so we didn't hike it. Everybody coming back up was looking really exhausted! We drove up to Upolu Airport which is the far northern part of the island and has a nice view of Maui. It's just a general aviation airport - I don't think there was even a tower or anything. Then we headed back along the coast route to Kona.

We tried to go to Lapakahi State Historical Park, which contains the remains of an old Hawaiian village, but the @#$#s who run it decided to lock the gate a couple of hours early. We did manage to make it to the Pu'ukohola Heiau before closing - a big stone temple with an interesting history.

Along the coast we stopped at Hapuna Beach and wandered around a bit. It's a classic white sand beach, bikini babes, that sort of thing. We went to Wawaloli beach mostly for the tidepools which were actually pretty unimpressive, and then for sunset we headed to 'Anaeho'omalu beach (called A-Beach even by the locals). It's gorgeous for sunset and it was interesting enough with extensive fish ponds that we would return to see it during the day.

Day Eight - Cleanup around Kona - We had a few odds and ends left in the area we had had to skip due to closing times or whatever, so while we weren't on any new major roads it was all interesting stuff. First we headed to Kealakekua Bay. It's a popular spot to kayak and snorkel. There's apparently a really good chance of spinner dolphins showing up. Well, we not only had spinner dolphins but a pod of whales came into the bay and we saw as many as four at once. They breached several times as well as doing other behaviors.

We also went to the nearby "Place of Refuge" - Pu'uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park - which has some interesting old walls and a nice historial aspect but it's also gorgeous with sea turtles everywhere and water clear enough that you can stand on a lava flow and watch the turtles swimming around below you.

We headed up to A-Beach and checked out the pools by daylight. They're very interesting - all kinds of sea life - fish, crabs, eels, end up in there and you can see them pretty nicely. We also saw the Hawaiian Stilt (Ae'o) - a critically endangered bird. That makes three endangered birds plus the sea turtles and some other birds which we aren't as sure about (because we didn't get really good looks at them or whatever). It's really kind of bittersweet to be able to see these animals while there's still time while knowing they may not have much longer.

The surf was pretty nasty and getting worse. There was a high surf advisory and so forth (this is a good part of why we ended up not snorkeling - by the time we got to the sunny side it wasn't very calm). We went to Kiholo Bay which is supposed to be a super calm area and it had surfers retreating because the waves got to be too big!

Day Nine - Fly Home - We had a fairly early flight so we just walked around downtown a bit and then headed to the airport. The only interesting thing about the airport is that you have to go through a number of agricultural checks, and that you have to manually carry your bags to various stations to check agriculture, check in, and the security folks. If there were long lines this could have gotten pretty ugly - luckily the lines in our area were short although on the way to our gate we saw the lines for another airline were huge. There aren't a ton of flights out of this airport, so I think as long as you get there early you're OK. (We called the airline and they recommended 2 hours before).

All in all, a very nice trip!

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Copyright © 2001 - 2007 Doug Wade including all photographs except where otherwise noted.