Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Destinations on The Big Island

The Big Island’s greatest asset is its size and ample number of sights and destinations. Too much of a pulse to sit around sipping Mai Tai's? Me too. We drove around the outer edge of the entire island and saw all the major highlights, and then some. That said, I could spend another week on the Big Island to enjoy more trail hiking and off-the-beaten-path sights. Highlights started with Volcanoes National Park. The Kilauea Iki Trail is marvelous, and all three of my kids loved hiking its four-plus miles. The trail back up is no worse than your average Minnesota bluff country trail – maybe a 400-foot elevation gain through an incredible rainforest.

Oh, about that, the “rain” forest. It was remarkably dry. A park ranger said the area had three inches of rain for the year when the average is 60! I wouldn’t think of blaming it on climate change.... Other points of interest at Volcanoes include the Thurston Lava Tube and of course the always steaming Kilauea Caldera. No one else in the automobile was particularly interested in hanging around all night to see the glow from the caldera, or to try and find some actual lava, so it being six against one, we bailed. (In their defense, it was a four-hour drive roundtrip from the resort to the Park.) When I return to Big Island, I will spend a night or two near the city of Hilo, just to be closer to the volcano at night.

Word of advice: the rangers and other staff at Volcanoes are fairly worthless. I found one old guy who appeared to know more about the national park than me, and after some steady prodding I coerced some useful information out of him. The mission of most staff appeared to be to keep visitors on the pavement as long as possible, then move them out of their park. Always while admitting nothing about any flowing lava anywhere on the island.

Driving back to Waikoloa via Kona, we checked out the black sand Punaluʻu Beach, in southeast Hawai’i. Lots of people and sea turtles. (Ain’t nothing can make a Drieslein boy dirty like black sand!) Also saw macademia nut trees and coffee plantations around the southwestern corner of Hawai’i. Very slow driving on the two-lane road, so you can expect to only make about 45 mph. Makes for a long day, but kids rolled with it well.

Weather, by the way, is ridiculously marvelous everywhere. Temps probably topped out in low 80s by day and low 70s at night. Exception was walking out on lava rock, which absorbs heat like a sponge and must have been pushing three figures in the afternoon. Rooms were air conditioned, so we slept well. Length of day and night were remarkably uniform, and I understand that the time difference between summer and winter solstice is less than one hour. The tropics, go figure.

Our day trip on Wednesday, Oct. 13 was excellent. We drove over the Mountaintop Road that bisects the northwest portion of the island – the so-called Kohala Peninsula. This is the oldest portion of the island (farthest from the volcanic “hot spot”) since the Pacific Plate moves in a northwesterly direction. That means lava rock has had more time to erode into actual soil in this area. Thus more vegetation and a lusher, classic Hawaiian vibe. There was a stop in the town of Hawi along the way, complete with the senior citizen/tourism center and locals singing karoake at 10 a.m. We enjoyed learning some of the history of King Kamehameha during the trip and snapped a gratuitous tourist picture in front of his statue. A similar statue exists adjacent to the Hawaiian capitol on O’ahu, I’m told. This tough guy unified the Hawaiian Islands almost exactly 200 years ago. Read about him here.

The Pololu Valley (photo atop this blog) offers a spectacular vista, but the hike down was really awesome. It provided some fine exercise that morning. We returned right before a rainshower struck. I would NOT want to hike that trail when wet.

Side note to nude swimmers at Pololu: You are effectively cutting off half the beach with your decision to recreate in the buff. Yes, Americans have a ridiculous fear of bare flesh (example), but given my courteous nature, I didn’t hike down to visit your end of the beach. Neither did the other dozen-plus people visiting that day, because we were trying to respect your privacy. Problem was, it’s a public beach, you assholes. I don’t give a flying bleep about your private parts, but clearly, given your “body language” you were uncomfortable with people coming near you. If that’s the case, keep your clothes on and don’t install a defacto “private beach” sign by stripping, then acting nervous when anyone comes with 150 yards. Idiots.

Heading back through Hawi, we hit the Tropical Dreams ice cream shoppe where the ice cream was every bit as good the guidebooks suggested. The gal behind the counter, originally from Minnesota apparently, needs to hone the customer service skills, but the ice cream was delicious. (Always irritating when someone charging $4 for a scoop of ice cream acts as though she’s doing you a favor by serving it.)

Rounding out the day, we visited Lapakahi State Historical Park, the remnants of a Hawaiian fishing village that remained active up until just over 100 years ago, and Pu’ukohola Heiau, a temple that Kamehameha built before unifying the islands. The latter is managed by the National Park Service. (Again, featuring staffers who can’t provide a straight answer about anything, presumably because they’re in constant fear of losing their jobs, health benefits, and federal pensions.) Heiaus (ancient temples) are all over the islands, and we stopped at several during our weeklong visit.

Speaking of beaches, because of the ubiquitous rock, massive, mile-long beaches are rare on the Big Island. But there are a number of small beaches that offer marvelous white sand, light surf and everything you expect from an old-school Pacific beach. We hit several along the west coast of Hawai’i in the so-called Kohala region. My favorite was Mauna Kea Beach, which was a little more difficult to access through the adjacent resort. Hapuna Beach felt a little beat up, though it has a reputation, according to Conde Nast Traveler magazine, as one of the top beaches in the United States. Anaeho’omalu Bay (A-Bay) was a brief walk from our resort, and – feral cats aside – was nice, too. There are many others we didn’t visit.

An aside: Ever wonder why Hawaiian place names are so long and use the same letters repeatedly? It’s because the Hawaiian alphabet has only 13 letters. With fewer letters to choose from, words must – by definition – be longer; sorta like binary counting. (Work with me.)

City of Kona had a Costco for gassing up and purchasing food and other items, but other than that, Kona will be at the bottom of my visit list when I return to the Big Island. Felt like a huge city with a busy urban center. We visited long enough on our last day to see the Palace and a couple other historic sights, including the Moku'aikaua Church, the first Christian church in the islands. By the way, did you know the Brits called these islands the Sandwich Islands? Photo above, by the way, shows Middle Boy at the finish line of the Hawaiian Iron Man. He declared that the next time he visits that site, it will be as a finisher of the granddaddy of all triathlons, which of course happens here.

Van from Alamo worked fine, and most of the staff was great, other than the obnoxious sales guy who must receive a massive commission from upselling insurance on the vehicle. Wouldn’t take no for an answer. What a jerk.

Hawaii: The Big Island Revealed probably is the best guidebook for checking out Hawai’i. Obviously, it focuses on the Big Island, so that specificity is helpful, and the book has a no-nonsense style from author Andrew Doughty that I appreciated. I paid $16.95 for it at Barnes and Noble on the Mainland. Saw it at Kona Costco for $11. Must have a corner on the market on The Big Island, because we saw it everywhere while in Hawai’i.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Snorkeling with Seaquest

After about 20 minutes of sitting poolside (or lakeside) at any given resort, I need to explore. Hence the name of my blog. Anyway, said nervousness erupted at the Waikoloa Hilton on the Big Island of Hawai’i, and I needed to hit the ocean for some snorkeling. Annette recognized the signs and told me to hit the road and bring the big boys with me. A little snooping online produced a decent-looking operation, Seaquest, snorkeling and rafting adventures out of Kona. Price was OK, especially if you booked online (like $15 off per person) so it came to about $200 for the three of us. That was for the four-hour Deluxe Morning Adventure tour. That’s steeper than I like to spend on a half-day’s entertainment, but the tour offered great access to arguably the two top snorkeling destinations on Hawai’i: Kealakekua Bay and Honaunau Bay.

Boys and I took off around 6:45 a.m. so we could reach the operation south of Kona by 7:45 for the 8 a.m. launch. (We got there early.) Parking was odd, and the whole area felt a little seedy, but it ultimately was safe. A bunch of water-access operations are clustered along the same bay, so you’ll see lots of folks getting geared up for a day on the water. We covered ourselves in sunscreen (Logan was thrilled), then loaded onto a big inflatable raft with two 150-horse Yamaha four-stroke outboards. There was the three of us, a 30-something couple from O’ahu, and about 10 aging babyboomers. Logan offered a clever nugget as we boarded: “I think we’re with a bunch of old, rich people trying to finish up their bucket list.” Cripes, who’s he been hanging around?

Captain Steve eyed the boys somewhat warily as we exited the cove, then we cruised about a half-mile offshore and headed south along the Big Island’s west coast. Fun fact: We were immediately over deep water, like 1,000 feet plus, because there’s no continental shelf off Hawai’i. These are volcanic islands that rise off the sea floor rapidly, and the drop-off from the land is even steeper than the volcanoes on shore. Consequently, some of the greatest near-shore “deep-sea” fishing in the world exists right here off Kona. We could see several fishing boats a little father offshore.

Bouncing along, I could tell Logan was a little concerned about seasickness. He’d developed some airsickness during the five-hour flight from LAX, and this was on his mind. I encouraged both boys to monitor the horizon and breath deep, and they were fine. Calm seas didn’t hurt.

Twenty minutes later we arrived at Honaunau Bay, the so-called “Place of Refuge” among the Hawaiians. The history of this ancient safety zone, almost a purgatory for those who violated the Kapu laws, is fascinating. A national monument now, its history is available here.

Captain Steve smiled as my boys were the first ones in the water and took off snorkeling without any whining or direction. He apparently deals with a lot of kids who want no part of being on the water but are pushed into the “adventure” by their parents. Not a problem with the Drieslein lads. Snorkeling was very good, though to be honest I recall seeing a wider variety of colorful coral and fish during my dives in the Bahamas. I suspect these sites in Hawaii get pounded with snorkelers and divers so they’re not in the greatest of shape. Nonetheless, we kicked around admiring the brain coral and parrotfish for 30 minutes before Alec swallowed a little too much seawater. He’d also become a little spooked at the currents that pulled us toward some rocks a couple times. I pulled him away and brought him to the boat where Captain Steve, his terribly personable first mate, and several of the boomers who’d already returned fussed over him and stuffed him full of cookies and fresh fruit. Logan and I continued snorkeling until Captain Steve called us in. A couple times we swam through a group of fish nibbling on a piece of apple someone had thrown from the boat.

Firing up the raft, Steve then headed back north along the coast, swinging the craft into sea caves and lava tubes multiple times. Most had names I can’t remember and my photos don’t do them justice (lighting was tough.) You’ll see very few seabirds along the Hawaiian coast. There are few offshore islands for nesting, and a nest has virtually no chance on the main island because of the cats, rats, and mongoose. Very odd being on the ocean and seeing no seagulls.

Our second snorkeling destination, Kealakekua Bay, also has a fascinating history. Also on the National Register of Historic Places, Kealakekua Bay has a monument commemorating this as the location where Captain James Cook of the U.K. became the first European to discover the "Sandwich Islands" on January 17, 1779. Read about its history here.

To Seaquest and Captain Steve’s credit, they insisted that we avoid the rocks and not climb up to the monument. Feet and snorkeling equipment destroy the coral, and – even though they’re ultimately taking care of their cash cow – I give Seaquest credit for stressing ethics. The same could not be said for people renting kayaks on the far side of the bay, then paddling over and kicking the hell out of the site.

Diving was better here. A wider variety of fish and the coral was close-up, so close that we needed to be careful not to touch or kick it. I started diving down in some areas for a better view of sea urchins and other spiny critters (don’t touch!) hiding in the crevices of the coral. Both boys soon were testing their diving skills as well. They did great, going down 8-10 feet. Logan headed back to the raft about 10 minutes before last call, and Alec and I were the last ones to load.

A few more stops at some sea caves, and we returned to our launch site four hours after we’d left. Logan couldn’t believe how quickly the time had passed. Captain Steve complimented me on having great, non-whining kids. “No one cried,” he said. “That always means we’ve had a good day.” Then he qualified, “I don’t mean to suggest just your kids didn’t cry. You’d be surprised how many adults get upset on these trips.” I can see that. If you’re inexperienced with snorkeling, swallow a little water, get seasick, or maybe the whole jumping into the cold ocean thing overwhelms you, then yeah, someone might get emotional. We had no problem, however.

I’d highly recommend Seaquest as an efficient way to safely see two of the top snorkeling sights in all of the Hawaiian Islands. Send Cap’n Steve my regards.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Hawai'i — The Good, Pt. 1

Confusion generally dominated my psyche while considering trips to Hawaii over the years. Many islands with so many confusing names with so many letters, especially k’s. They really like k’s in Hawaii. Gradually, however, I drew a few conclusions. O’ahu – that’s the island with the big city and famous Waikiki Beach. Too urban. Lots of people. Not my bag.

Maui: That’s the place where an increasing number of people my age go for their second weddings. No plans for a trophy wife….

Ka’uai: Wet and small. Probably less kid-friendly than…

Hawai’i: The Big Island. Twice as large as the other Hawaiian islands combined. Volcanoes, some decent beaches, coffee plantations. Plus, a number of friends had recommended it as the most family-friendly for “things to do.”

So when, on a whim, my parents and my family decided to visit the 50th state, The Big Island came out on top.

My lovely bride cashed out all of our frequent flyer miles, so four of our five family members could fly free, and through Costco Travel she found a great room at the Waikoloa Hilton (west side of Hawai’i) for a ridiculous price. I’m not averse to bragging about numbers. Airfare, oceanview room, two breakfast buffet tickets per day, and minivan cost about $3,500 for our family of five for a week. (Little guy was free for breakfast and by skipping one other day, we all ate breakfast basically for free on the trip.) This trip obviously occurred during the off-season; the boys had the entire week off from school for MEA week. We had to pay for gas, some other meals, and incidentals, but we found ways to do that as cheap as possible. We bought every gallon of gas that flowed through the carburetor – er... fuel injection chambers – at Costco in Kona. Grabbed a few lunches and miscellaneous items there, too. No, I’m not above plugging Costco.

The flight. It’s a long damn way to Hawaii from the Mainland. (Don’t call it the States, or “Back in the U.S.” Hawaiians of all races don’t like that. You’re in the U.S.) From MSP, you’re looking at three hours-plus to LAX, then another five-plus to the surprisingly undelightful open-air airport at Kona.

To Delta Airline’s credit, all flights took off and landed on time, and they conveyed my clan to and from the tropics safely. Those compliments behind us, the airplane was small, dirty, and had lousy airflow. There were NO overhead air vents on the flight from LAX to Kona, so it was stuffy and hot the whole flight. How is that possible in 2010? Gotta love monopolies.

The boys, age 11, 8, and 5 handled the flight better than me. Logan got airsick, but rolled with it very well. Will give my boys credit: They love to travel. They’re always pretty well behaved, but especially when they know they’re doing something special – like a trip to Hawaii. To the credit of my fellow Americans, we didn’t deal with any crabby babyboomers – or any other generations – who took offense to the mere presence of children on the aircraft. Thank you fellow travelers.

Driving from the airport to our lodging, we were surprised to see… rock.

Lava. Rock. Is. Bleeping. Everywhere. On. The. Big. Island.

Hey, you’re sitting on a still-growing island about the size of Connecticut with five volcanoes, three of them potentially active. Guess one shouldn’t be surprised to see a whole lot of rock. Still, for those who expect to view waterfalls around every corner, miles and miles of vast, black lava rock fields generated surprise.

Aside from the irritants I'll mention in separate blog, which we will pretend don’t exist here, the Waikoloa Hilton was a great place. Friendly, helpful staff, clean rooms, great pools and other amenities, and a reasonable drive to and from Kona Airport. We made lots of time for the boys to swim in the magnificent swimming pools, snorkel the lagoon, and watch the sunsets every night from the lava-rock and coral-strewn coastline.

The lagoon had surprisingly good snorkeling! We saw many species of fish, including some small baracuda, eels, parrotfish, plus sea turtles. Though the lagoon lacked coral, we arguably saw as many different fish species in its calm waters as we did while snorkeling a half-day with Seaquest Adventures in two prime spots. (See future blog specific to Seaquest.)

Though we skipped the $90/person luau, the boys and I enjoyed watching a couple of staffers bury a pig in a fire pit. The friendly pair of Hawaiians provided ample insight into the history behind this style of cooking and their personal backgrounds. Annette and I perhaps can tackle a luau together someday when we’re paying for two.

The Waikoloa resort complex contains some of the best examples of Hawaiian petroglyphs, stone carvings, in the state. The petroglyphs, I understand, are possibly the closest thing to a written language that Hawaiians used. Info from the resort website says some petroglyphs are thought to be astronomical symbols, travel markers or commemorations of historic events. What struck me was how the semi-urban resort area was simply built around them. Park near Tiffany’s, walk past the ABC store, cut through the gas station parking lot to reach the trail through the petroglyphs carved into the lava rock. (Try to ignore the clearly more recent – often phallic – graffiti.) Oh, and don’t forget to dodge the sliced golf balls bouncing through the sacred ground. Some idiot missed the fairway by 100 yards (even I’m not that bad!) and his ball came within a couple feet of me. He witnessed multiple foul gestures from yours truly. Ban golf.

More to come…