The visit to the island of Hawaii, commonly referred to as the Big Island, began late in the third day of the trip. The first thing most folks notice upon arrival is that there are no jet bridges. Since my last visit in 2004 the mobile aircraft boarding stairs have been replaced by boarding ramps, but deplaning still requires crossing the tarmac to reach the open-air terminal. Within ten or fifteen minutes of landing, we were in our rental car heading for the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, about 25 miles to the north. More details about the property are in the post Mauna Kea Beach Hotel - Autograph property par excellence. We spent the evening getting settled and exploring the layout of the hotel.
Our first full day on the Big Island began with a snorkeling trip to Kealakekua Bay. Actually it began with a 45 minute drive to Keauhou Bay followed by a 7½ mile boat trip to Kealakekua Bay, which is often cited as the best snorkeling spot in the entire state. I can see why.
There are additional pictures, several of which came from Kealakekua Bay in the photo album Underwater Hawaii.
Two and half hours in the water, followed by a great lunch (cheeseburgers, hot dogs, or garden burgers) passed quickly. Another hour back to the dock and the excursion was over. After returning to land, we lingered a while in the Kailua-Kona area stopping by Don the Beachcomber’s in the Royal Kona Resort for our afternoon “prescription meds.” As I mentioned in the previous blog post, I’m a bit of sucker for tiki bars and Don the Beachcomber was one of the heavyweights in that field (along with Trader Vic). Though I was a little disappointed with the décor, the location overlooking the ocean was superb.
By the time we returned to the hotel, the combination of sunshine, surf, and physical activity had worn us out. Add to that the fact that we still had not fully adjusted to the six hour time difference and an early evening nap became a long night’s sleep.
The next morning, fully refreshed, if not a little sunburned, we readied for a drive to Hilo on the eastern side of the island. As many Insiders know, mailing postcards from each county seat in the US is a necessary part of almost all my travels, so a visit to Hilo (the seat for Hawaii County) was a must. I actually stayed in Hilo on my last trip to the Big Island, but since that was before I began my county seat collecting, I needed to return to “collect” Hawaii County. Of course the 90 minute drive from one side of the island to the other was not just about mailing a postcard from the county seat (okay, yes it was ). Even so, the windward side of the island has sites worth exploring, especially along the Hamakua coast. The most impressive place we visited was Akaka Falls State Park. Akaka Falls is 442 feet high (one source says 422 ft.). However tall, it is impressive. There are actually two waterfalls at the park, Akaka Falls and Kahuna Falls. If pressed for time, skip Kahuna Falls.
By the time we reached Hilo, the thermometer had hit 90 and we needed a way to cool off. I now understand why shave ice is so popular in Hawaii. We found a shop called Hawaiian Brain Freeze (sounded like the perfect place) and ordered a couple small shave ices, mango for her, raspberry with a snow cap (covering of condensed milk) for me. Seriously, these were the small size. I came just short of eating all of mine, glad I had not chosen a larger size.
After mailing my postcard, we drove back the way we came through Waimea where we stopped for a late lunch. We watched another sunset from the beach and then dropped by the Hau Tree, the beach bar for some evening refreshments.
Once the sun had set, the hotel staff turned on the flood light near the north end of the beach at a place nicknamed “Manta Point.” The light attracts plankton, which attracts fish, which attracts manta rays. We watched these amazing creatures for about an hour before turning in for the night.
The third full day on the Big Island turned out to be Labor Day. On an extended vacation, it can be hard to keep track of the days. What I didn’t forget is that this was the day I had booked our tour to visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Knowing that Hawaii Volcanoes NP is on the exact opposite side of the island from our hotel, I knew I didn’t want to make a round trip drive, so hiring someone else to do it made perfect sense. Our mini bus arrived around 11:30am and whisked us and the other 10 guests across the Saddle Road (average elevation 6000 feet) to Hilo and on to Volcano. On the drive we were lucky enough to see the Pueo, or Hawaiian Owl. Unlike most owls, the Pueo is often active during the day and we saw several flying above the grasslands. One even perched on a fencepost along the road almost begging us to take pictures.
As we descended into Hilo, we stopped at Kaumana Caves (actually a lava tube) and Rainbow Falls (above). We had considered visiting Rainbow Falls a day earlier when in Hilo, but did not, so I was glad the tour made the stop. Though not as tall as Akaka Falls, Rainbow Falls has more visitors since it more easily accessible just on the outskirts of Hilo.
After another hour, we finally reached the area around Kilauea. The entire place has an otherworldly fell with vents spewing steam into the air and ground that appears to be smoking. When I last visited it was still possible to drive all the way around the crater on Crater Rim Drive. Not anymore. Since 2008, Crater Rim Drive is closed between the Jagger Museum and Chain of Craters Road due to dangerous levels of sulfur dioxide. I consider myself lucky to have been here before the road closure. I understand the parking lot and trail I visited last time have since been destroyed by the volcano.
The only disappointment of the entire trip came when we visited the Jagger Museum after dark to see the glow of lava. Clouds obscured most of the view, though I did manage to get one semi decent photograph of the glow reflecting off the clouds.
I had hoped to get a more clear view of the crater, but it was not to be. I suppose that will mean a third visit to Volcanoes National Park could be in my future. Three hours later we arrived back at the hotel glad we left the driving to someone else.
Our final full day on the Big Island began with breakfast at the Aloha Deli, just a couple miles north of the Mauna Kea in the small, unincorporated community of Kawaihae. Despite the amazing buffet spread put out at the Manta Restaurant in the Mauna Kea, sometimes simple is better. We knew we’d never get $70 worth of breakfast the buffet would cost for two, so instead we found a place frequented by locals. Nothing fancy, just your typical breakfast which set us back less than $10 apiece. I’m all for the convenience of hotel dining, but sometimes it’s nice to get out and discover little hole in the wall restaurants. Other options for off-site dining are 10-15 minutes south at the Shops and Mani Lani and Waikoloa Village. Most places there cater to tourists, so expect somewhat higher prices though still cheaper than eating at the hotel.
On our way back from Kawaihae, we stopped briefly at the Pu’ukohola Heiau National Historic Site, just a mile or so north of the Mauna Kea. The site has historical significance related to the conquest of all the Hawaiian Islands by Kamehameha the Great. Those curious can find lots more information on National Park Service website.
Though barely 9:00am, the sun was already beginning to bake us. What better way to remedy this than a dip in the ocean. With such a great beach and amazing snorkeling right along the shore, we returned the hotel and hit the beach. By 11:00am we were sacked out on lounge chairs under a cabana enjoying the good life.
Two o’clock found us back in the car heading for the rendezvous point for another tour, this one to the top of Mauna Kea to watch the sunset and stargaze. Everyone goes to the Big Island to see flowing lava. What everyone should do is take a tour up to the top of the world’s tallest mountain (when measured from its base at the sea floor). Mauna Kea stands 13,796 feet above sea level, but is over 33,000 from base to summit. It also happens to be home to about a dozen of the world’s most powerful telescopes. The high elevation and limited light pollution make the peak one of the best places in the world for astronomical observation.
We made a brief stop at the visitor’s center officially known as the Okizuka Center for International Astronomy Visitor Information Station, roughly 9,200 feet up the mountain. Beyond the visitor’s center, the road is unpaved and very steep. Only guided tours and four wheel drive vehicles can continue on to the top. We reached the summit in time to take in a glorious sunset above the clouds. At roughly 35 degrees F, the parkas and gloves provided by the tour company were most welcome.
Once the sun set we headed back down to around 9,000 feet where our guide set up the telescope. This wasn’t your typical backyard set up. This was an 11” Celestron telescope that would set an amateur astronomer back between $3,000 and $4,500 depending on the choice of filters and accessories. Unlike the free viewing across the way at the visitor’s center, we had only a dozen people using the telescope which allowed us to look at a variety of objects. We saw Saturn (rings clearly visible), the Lagoon Nebula, several star clusters, and the Andromeda galaxy. Our guide also pointed out a number of constellations like Hercules, Scorpius, Draco, and Cygnus.
My camera equipment was completely unsuited to taking photographs of the night sky, but I was fortunate enough to capture this.
Staring at the Milky Way, I barely thought about taking any photographs, so I’m glad I did get a few. Perhaps if I return, I’ll come better equipped.
With a 9:00am flight to Maui the next day, the journey back from Mauna Kea essentially ended the Big Island portion of the trip. Needless to say, the time here was well spent. We were busy, but no so busy as to feel rushed. We stayed at a truly amazing hotel, spent part of almost every day in the water, and sampled a variety of tropical drinks. It was everything a Hawaiian vacation should be.
The next blog entry will wrap up the trip to Hawaii with my first ever visit to Maui.