Our vacation to the Big Island of Hawaii started off rather slow; Our flight out of Minneapolis was supposed to leave at 11:30, and the flight attendants were hurrying everyone on board for an on-time departure. Shortly after they closed the door the pilot announced that there was a mechanical problem that they had to fix at the gate, so that the plane could fly on from LA to Honolulu. He wasn’t sure how long it would take, but thought it would be about an hour. Apparently the plane has two air conditioners on board, and one had to be replaced. They could fly us to LA with one, but they can’t cross the pacific without two. Half an hour into the delay our pilot announced it wasn’t going well – and we would be waiting longer. Finally after about an hour he announced it was repaired, they turned the air back on in the plane, and after another 20 minute wait for them to finish paperwork, we were on our way.
The flight to LA was uneventful, but the delay had cut our layover at LAX from 3 hours to just over 1. We had just enough time to grab a quick bite to eat before it was time to board our second flight to Kona. That flight left on time, so within an hour we were passing time watching the first episodes of House of Cards; which is excellent. The flight got in about 30 minutes early, but the Kona airport is super old school – totally outdoors, no jetways, minimal amenities. You disembark from the plan, down the stairs, straight onto the runway. About 45 minutes later we had our rental and were making the 20 minute drive North to the resort. The Four Seasons there was ranked as the #1 hotel on the island, and for good reason: its beautiful, the service is top-notch, and the rooms are fantastic. We were greeted with mai tai’s, leis, and the beautiful open-air lobby.
The first night was a bit of a blur – it was only 10pm, but it felt like 2am. (it could have been worse, Hawaii doesn’t observe daylight savings, so it was a 4 instead of 5 hour difference). After being escorted to our room we changed into warm-weather clothing and made our way to one of the bars for island cocktails.
The next morning gave us our first daylight look at the resort, and the view from our balcony. We were definitely not disappointed. We were about 50 feet from the ‘quiet pool’, where resort staff walk around and enforce a library-esque noise level.
Our room was pretty awesome too:
Our first full day on the island had us driving north to the Pololu Valley, on a mission to retrieve sand from one of Hawaii’s famous black sand beaches. The hour long drive took us up the west coast, and around the northern tip of the island. The scenery featured dramatic changes that seemed to happen in a matter of minutes. Ragged lava, desert like scrub, and finally a very green, very lush, rainforest-like landscape. The roads were equally dramatic. Mostly two-lane highways, but as we got closer to our destination they got very windy, very hilly, and there were a half dozen one-lane bridges.
When we finally got to the Pololu Valley Lookout, we realized we might be in over our heads. We had been told to expect a short hike – we didn’t realize it was nearly a mile and down several hundred feet to the beach below. Neither one of us had proper hiking boots – I had some water shoes, Erin was wearing flip flops. We saw tourists returning from the beach that looked ragged – soaking wet with sweat, and beat tired. I’m not sure why – but we decided to go for it anyway. The walk down actually ended up being the hardest part – the trail was steep, and rough. Lots of roots, rocks, and loose gravel trying to twist our ankles. We stopped several times to take in the breathtaking views:
Finally we made it to the bottom, and it was all worthwhile.
The sand was indeed black, very fine grained, and super soft. Probably the softest beach sand I’ve ever sunk my toes into. We lounged for a while – taking in the scenery, the warm sun, and relaxing our quads before making our way back. At that point we were decently tired from our adventure, and the time change made us feel like it was almost dinner time. We made our way back to the hotel, for a welcoming reception and cocktails, that happened to be on the grass between our patio and the quiet pool.
The next day (Friday) we relaxed and hung out at the hotel. We swam in the protected ocean pool, in the quiet pool, and laid out in the sun with mai tais. When we had enough lounging, we took a walk around the grounds. The resort was impeccably kept. The grass all looked like a putting green, and I’m pretty sure they ‘mowed’ it every day. Landscapers were constantly attending to the plants, removing detritus, and pruning things back. Every single employee we walked by said hello. They really are on their ‘A’ game.
After a hectic day of lounging our asses off, we headed out for a sunset cruise on a large catamaran. Clouds were low on the horizon which cut the display short, but it wasn’t exactly disappointing:
After the sunset cruise, we grabbed dinner at Roy’s in Waikaloa. It’s a small chain restaurant, but the menu doesn’t seem like it. We had some really tasty crab cakes, ahi tuna, pot stickers, duck over risotto, mahi mahi, house-made ice cream and sorbet. We turned in fairly early, because the next day we were bound for Kona, to go on a snorkeling cruise. We boarded the Hula Kai, one of the smaller but fast cruise vessels out of Kona, and headed south to our first snorkel spot. I don’t remember what it was called, but the small bay inlet had a rock formation to one side that looked like the head of a lizard.
Everywhere we went I was impressed with how clear the water was, but nowhere was that as evident as when we finally got in the water snorkeling. Our first location was dominated with black triggerfish and yellow tangs. The inlet was fairly small, and the currents were strong, so we had to be careful to keep an eye on where we were.
We stayed at this first location for about 45 minutes, before heading back to the boat for a light breakfast, and cruise to our second snorkeling spot. While we were on our way, the captain spotted something breaking the surface a mile or so out to sea. We were at the very early beginning of the whale season in Hawaii, and we had heard plenty of other people boasting that they had seen one – so we were pretty hopeful this was our chance. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be, but we did see some dolphins that were likely hunting. After pursuing them for 15 minutes or so, we turned to keep moving towards our final destination. Due to the wind picking up we went to what is the most popular snorkeling spot on the big island: Kealakekua Bay, and Captain Cook’s monument.
The area is a protected marine life preservation district, and is a registered historic place, having been settled over 1,000 years ago. Luckily we got there as a big group was finishing up, so our boat dropped us at the north end of the bay, and over the next 20 minutes we drifted to the central area, where our boat finally tied off. The inner edge of the bay is quite shallow, but there is a very steep drop off about 60 feet from shore, dropping down 120 feet. The water was very warm in spots, and very cold in others due to a large number of natural freshwater springs.
The fish were more diverse here. I saw plenty of the yellow tangs, but also moorish idols, butterflies, wrasse, parrotfish, groupers, squirrelfish, needlefish, and hawkfish. At one point I also saw a very shy zebra moray eel.
At one point we spotted some dolphins, a few hundred feet from the boat. Erin had gone back to the boat at this point, to warm up and grab some lunch. I was taking in everything I could, so, I tried to swim over to where the dolphins were clustered. I was deeper into the bay at this point – over deep water. I couldn’t see the bottom, and had to keep a regular eye on the water around me to make sure nothing with big teeth was going to surprise me. Unfortunately the dolphin moved out before I could reach them, and I made my way back to the safety of shallower water. After almost two hours of snorkeling it was time to eat some lunch and head back. We got some pretty cool pictures, but, days like these really make me miss my reef aquariums.
Saturday night, after a full day on the water, we had a luau dinner which was moved indoors due to questionable weather. More mai tais, more good food, and laughs over people made to hula dance. The food wasn’t very filling, so we ended up back in our hotel room ordering room service for our last night at the resort. Sunday we checked out of the four seasons, and went on a long drive across the island to Volcano National Park.
On our way to the park, we detoured to check out the southern most point in the US, as well as the green sand beach. The concierge at the hotel said she didn’t recommend the green sand beach, but, it’s hard to pass up when we probably won’t be back any time soon. The drive in was very picturesque but kept with the theme of the rest of the island with its own unique vegetation.
After a 30min drive, we finally got to the parking area, and were told it was a 6 mile round trip walk, but that for $15 a head a local would drive us to the beach. We decided we didn’t have time for the walk, and opted for transport, which turned out to be an old, very rough, Toyota 4Runner. Once we were on our way, I was wondering why we couldn’t have just made the drive in our rental Ford Explorer, but that changed quickly.
Once we rounded a corner and crested a hill, I realized this was terrain that would challenge any 4×4 vehicle, and I have a new found respect for how bulletproof that 4runner was. Even buckled in I managed to hit my head a few times, and the 3-mile drive took over 30 minutes. The green sand beach was super cool to see, but we only hung out for about 10 minutes. The whole experience was definitely worth it, but we were on our way to volcanoes.
Before leaving the area for good, I had noticed some abandoned buildings that I wanted to shoot. Apparently it’s the long-gone remnants of a military base. I have a hard time passing up abandoned things, so I took a quick walk through to check it out.
After spending a bit longer on this detour than planned, we finally hit the road to the volcanoes. The drive was a bit rough – we were both starving, and towns were few and far between, with even less restaurants. We probably would have even settled for gas station snacks, but, no dice. We climbed something like 6,000 feet as we made our way to the entrance of the park and visitor center, where the temperature had dropped from 80 degrees at the green sand beach to the low 60s in the park. Funny what some elevation will do. The weather had also gone from bright and sunny to cloudy, foggy, and misting. It was very much a rainforest feel, with huge ferns, fat palmed plants, and high humidity. We ate some lunch at the Volcano House hotel, before taking the drive down the Chain of Craters road. A few of the normal sightseeing roads were closed due to volcano and lava activity, but unfortunately we never actually saw any hot lava. The southern area of the park is mix of different lava flows over the years – and the transformation that happens afterwards. Recent flows were black with little to no vegetation. You start seeing some small green plants in the older flows, with small trees and bushes in the 40+ year old flow areas. We decided to drive to the end of the road and sightsee on our way back. The end of the road, where lava meets ocean was pretty spectacular. The contrast of dark stone cliffs against the blue-green water was beautiful.
The lava itself has the craziest textures – where ribbons have folded upon themselves, in permanent patterns that will eventually be lost under earth and green.
These are some of the first plants you start to see as dirt settles in on the lava bed:
A pretty common site was the stark contrast of dead tree trunks in lava fields. They look like driftwood, but are far from shore:
There are a handful of semi-dormant craters on the drive. Some have active outgassing visible, others were filled with dead but once alive trees. Towards the top it was so foggy you couldn’t see anything but hints of the enormous magnitude of the empty area past the trees.
One of the many highlights was an extinct lava tube that you can walk through. It was hard to know what to expect when we got there, but it was pretty damn cool. I’m guessing it was around 100 feet long, and about 15 feet in diameter through most of its length.
Finally we made it back to the visitor center area, which was now closed, but we decided to drive to the ‘art gallery’ and main volcano crater lookout. It was near dusk, so we weren’t sure what we would see, but we were in for a treat. We overheard a local telling some visitors that they should go inside to check out the stuff, but be back outside before dark to get a front-row view of the caldera at night.
It wasn’t much to see when we got there, but when I got this picture, I could tell it would be worth the wait.
As the clouds rolled through I wasn’t sure if we were going to get a clear view or not, but luckily this was the worst of them.
At this point the crowd was getting really thick – it had gone from maybe 30 or 40 people when we arrived to well over 150. I had grabbed a great spot on the bordering half-wall, and was one of the few people with camera equipment suited to capture the scene. That sounds cocky, but the reality is you can’t shoot something like this with a cellphone or point and shoot camera with a flash you can’t turn off. I could hear people’s reactions behind me when they could see the screen of my camera light up after every picture, but I think that served to only make them more desperate to try to capture the scene themselves. More and more flashes were going off, reflecting off the humidity and slight bit of ash in the air, making it harder and harder to get good pictures at all. The voices behind me began to get harsher, more pointed, and almost threatening, all in languages I don’t understand. I could feel people started to jostle for position, bumping each other out of the way, and at that point I decided to take off before it got out of hand.
We made our way from the park to Hilo where we ate at a little open-air restaurant called Pineapples for some delicious fish tacos. The drive to our second hotel in Waikoloa took us through the heart of the big island, between two of the main volcano peaks – Kilauea in Volcano National Park, and Mauna Kea. As we got away from the coast, the sky finally cleared, the moon had not yet risen, and the sky was full of stars. I was extremely tempted to turn off the highway and head up to the Mauna Kea visitor center to try to take some star photos. At the top of the peak are some of the best land-based optical telescopes in the world. The observatory is around 14,000 feet, which was out of reach, but the visitor center at 9,000ft would have provided a good spot for some epic star photos. Unfortunately we had a hotel to get checked into, and had to be up early to make our way to Kona before flying out the next night, so I drove on.
The next morning we ate breakfast at one of the local restaurants – Island Lava Java, where I had the best eggs benedict I’ve ever had. From there we drove to Kona, where we did some shopping, ate more fish tacos, and had a couple more tropical cocktails on various patios.
The flight out of Kona was a bit of a shit show – but who really wants to hear about that?
I’ll post some more photos as I have a chance to sort through them.