Tuesday, January 11, 2011

whirlwind tour of the Big Island

After several relaxing days in Maui, we headed to the Big Island for the rest of the week. I'd read my Big Island Revealed guidebook thoroughly before arriving, and had planned out an ambitious itinerary.

We arrived mid-afternoon and picked up our rental car. We had originally booked a compact, but the tourbook "strongly suggested" a 4x4, so we paid an extra $100 or so to upgrade to a Jeep Wrangler. Best decision ever.

After stopping by our hotel in Keauhou, we headed down the coast to South Point. It was super windy there, so all the trees were leaning over:


When we reached the coast, we tried to find the famous green sand beach, but after 20+ minutes of pretty extreme off-roading, we hadn't found it and the sun was starting to go down, so we gave up and just admired the sunset while driving back:


On the way home, we stopped by Annie's Island Fresh Burgers for dinner. They closed at 8pm, and by the time we arrived it was already 7:30pm, but they were super nice and the burgers were amazing. I had "Steakhouse Burger" which was topped with mushrooms, gorgonzola and arugula, and D had the "Fresh Catch Wasabi Sandwich" which was a fish sandwich on sourdough with wasabi sauce and onion rings inside. I don't remember the name of the actual fish, but D said it tasted kind of like butterfish.

The next day, our primary goal was to explore Volcanoes National Park. Since we knew it would be a long drive, we got up at 6am and were on the road by 7am.

First we stopped by Punalu'u, another black sand beach. It was less impressive this time since we'd already seen one in Maui, but still really pretty:


We arrived at the park well before noon, and drove all around the open parts of the summit area:



It kept raining on and off, but we decided to try a hike anyway. We parked our car at the Kilauea Iki Lookout and headed into the crater on the Kilauea Iki Trail.


The trail wraps around the right side of the crater rim before descending onto the crater floor:


It showered on us a couple of times, but it was so warm that we dried off pretty fast. It was a fun hike, and only a couple of hours long, so afterwards we grabbed a quick lunch at a tiny cafe in the town of "Volcano" and then proceeded onward to Hilo.

I had two primary objectives in Hilo; to buy cookies and candies from Big Island Candies, and to buy mochi from Two Ladies Kitchen. We accomplished both.

Our stop at Big Island Candies was super-efficient; it looked like they were used to tour groups, they had tons of samples, and we quickly decided on several boxes of Mac Nut Crunchies, a few bags of the famous chocolate caramel dipped shortbread, and some of the new toffee candies. I also liked the Kona coffee cookies but the bags were too big and looked too crushable to take home, so I passed on that. The salesladies were super nice and kept pushing more samples at me while trying to talk to me in Japanese. They seemed a bit confused when I replied in English but continued to encourage me to "try! try this!".

Our experience at Two Ladies was totally different. It was New Year's Eve and they were technically closing early at 3pm, but when we arrived at 3:45pm the door was still open, so we went in anyway. We tried to place an order but at first the guy behind the cash register said they were closed. We then tried to buy a pre-boxed assortment anyway, and as we were trying to get that rung up, a girl came out of the kitchen and said that they'd accept our order. We quickly scanned the menu and picked out eight flavors, waited until the cashier had helped another two or three customers (the place was crazy busy), and tried to place our order. It turned out they were out of a few flavors, so we tried again. In fact, we tried like three or four times, each time waiting in line again, and by the time we got and paid for our order, we'd been there for over half an hour. Some of the flavors that we either attempted to order or ended up getting were: lilikoi (aka passionfruit), peach, plum, sweet potato, daifuku, tsumami, chiso, yomogi (some kind of leaf), kamato, peanut butter, and brownie. The whole time, I was impatient to leave because I wanted to hit a few more sights in Hilo before heading back to the volcano, so I was totally not appreciating the super-chill super-slow Hawaiian mode of operation. Later when we were eating the delicious strawberry red bean mochi in the car, I grudgingly decided it had been worth the wait after all. In fact, D says he may be spoiled for mochi forever.

Despite the delay, we did manage to stop by nearby Rainbow Falls before leaving Hilo:


From Hilo, it was about an hour drive to the lava flow viewing area at Kalapana. There were warning signs recommending 4x4 a few minutes out, but it wasn't really necessary, and right at the end we were directed to park and walk. It was only half a mile from the parking lot to the barricaded area, but it was a bit treacherous walking across the solidified lava, so the USGS had marked out a safe trail:


The lava was amazing. We got right up to about ten feet away, and could see clearly as the orange extrusions appeared, grew, and then cooled off and became dark grey and solid. There was a security guard there but he was super nice; he helped people get close-up photos with their cameras, poked at the lava with a stick to show us how hard it was, and answered lots of random questions. He explained that the part of the lava that we were standing on was only three days old, and that typically tourists were not allowed to get this close to the lava flow, but luckily the USGS had recently come by and certified a safe path for us.

We stayed for a good hour and a half, until after sunset. As the sun went down, it was easier to see all the glowing bits of orange everywhere, but it got harder to take photos:





As we were standing there looking at the lava, I recognized a former coworker of mine! She used to do marketing for my team's project, but had left to join a startup, and I hadn't seen her for several years. She had apparently gotten married as she was there with her husband, but otherwise looked much the same. Small world, indeed.

On our last full day in Hawaii, we decided to make good use of our Jeep yet again. First we drove up to Waipi'o Valley, on the north side of the island. The drive there was pleasant, but from the overlook it was a mile down a 25% grade mud/dirt road with multiple switchbacks, followed by a flat part covered in giant mud puddles. I was seriously afraid we were going to drown the engine, but we did make it to the beach, and it was very relaxing and peaceful there:



After getting back to the top, we first stopped by Tex's Drive In in Honokaa for some malasadas (Portuguese doughnuts), and then at Hawaiian Style Cafe in Kamuela for a real lunch. I ordered a Kalua pig hash and D had a combo plate of honey fried chicken and kalbi. When we saw the food we realized our mistake. Either we should have saved the malasadas for later, or we should have shared one dish. Despite being quite cheap, the portions were huge, and came with lots of sides (mac salad, fried potatoes, and more). We ended up taking half of the food to go, and headed for the Saddle Road.

The Saddle Road sits between Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea and links Kona and Hilo. The guidebook said that it was not in very good shape, but I think it must have been paved since then, because we had no problems at all. About halfway down the road, we turned towards Mauna Kea, heading for the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy.

The summit of Mauna Kea is at an elevation of almost 14,000 feet, is a dry environment, and has stable airflow. As a result, it is one of the best sites in the world for astronomical observation, and there are thirteen world-class observatories up there, funded by eleven different countries.

Ellison Onizuka was an astronaut who was born and raised in Kona. He successfully completed a mission on the Space Shuttle Discovery before being killed later in the Challenger explosion. The Onizuka Center is named for him. We stopped there at the Visitor Information Station, where we inquired about the best way to approach the summit. We knew that we were required to have a 4x4 vehicle, but they also gave us a detailed map and told us that if we could catch up to the tour which had left just ten minutes prior, we could see the inside of the Keck Observatory.

We started up the gravel road, which didn't seem that steep to me, but we had a hard time keeping up a decent speed, and D said the Jeep would fishtail from time to time. About a mile and a half in, it started beeping and flashing "hot oil". I told D to pull over, we turned off the A/C, waited 5-10 minutes, and started again. This time we made it up to about mile 4 before the beeping began. Again we waited a few minutes, and this time we were able to hit the pavement at mile 5 and make it up the rest of the way to mile 8.

The view at the top was breathtaking:


It was also really, really cold at 40 degrees, plus wind chill. Luckily we had both brought fleeces, windbreakers, and I had a scarf. We'd lost the tour on our way up, so when we got to Keck I (there are two Keck observatories), we had to bang on the door to get them to let us in. (They did.)

The tour guides showed us the telescope and talked about a lot of the new techniques used to optimize the images, such as adaptive optics using deformable mirrors.


We then went outside and they talked about the different organizations/countries which had funded each of the telescopes, and even a little bit about the history and geology of Mauna Kea. Towards the end I got really cold and retreated inside the car, but even then I enjoyed the view.


After the tour we slowly descended back to the visitor center at 9,000 feet. We kept stopping along the way to take photos, and we noticed other tourists copying us, too. The scenery was really spectacular:





Back down at the visitor center, we attended a talk given by a lecturer from the University of Hawaii (Hilo) about his work with adaptive optics. It was fascinating, but sadly half of the audience left early. On the bright side, the other half of the audience was super-engaged, asked a lot of really informed questions, and a few had brought their own telescopes (!!). As the talk ended, we were directed outside to where a bunch of telescopes had been set up to look at various astronomical objects. I was most impressed by the four visible moons of Jupiter, since I've seen a lot of the constellations before.

We spent our last morning at the Pu'uhonua o Honaunau Place of Refuge. Apparently back in the old days, if a Hawaiian broke a "kapu" (law), he/she could avoid punishment by running/swimming to the nearest place of refuge. An offender who managed to reach such a place would be purified and officially forgiven by a priest. Hmm.

Anyway, Pu'uhonua o Honaunau was one of the most sacred of these places of refuge, and today it's been made into a kind of outdoor museum to teach visitors about ancient Hawaiian culture. I'm not sure we learned all that much there, but it's a pretty place and is a good deal (like everything else in Hawaii) at $5:



From there we were off to the airport. When we got to the rental car return, the Budget rep actually asked us for a gas receipt! That was a first for me. Luckily we actually had filled up just a few miles away, so we didn't have to pay any penalty charges. Whew!

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