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.

1 comment:

  1. Nice review, Rob.

    My family LOVES Kona. Not the city part tho that you spoke of. Head the other direction and it's quiet, beautiful (well, rocky...but still), and full of great places to stay, restaurants, and cool beaches.

    We enjoy it beacuse it's quiet, fairly unspoiled, and dry. The Marriott is an especially nice property, w/ a sandy beach for the kids, great pool and good rates.