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Gazing into the Abyss: Michael Rawdon's Journal



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Debbi and I are back from Hawaii, and was it ever great! I took many photos, but I only used my film camera so it will be a while before I get them developed and can get any scanned to put up here. Meantime, you'll have to imagine it all as I write about it.

And yes, this is my longest entry in a while.


Thursday, September 25: Arrival

We spent a week on the big island (for which the state is named), mainly because Debbi wanted to see the volcano, which seemed like a good enough reason for me. My travel agent friend Lucy put together a package which had us flying into Kona and staying at the Marriott Waikoloa Beach ("An Outrigger Resort", whatever that is).

Additionally, my friend Rob had spent a week on the big island less than a month ago, and he recommended the guidebook Hawaii: The Big Island Revealed by Andrew Doughty and Harriett Friedman, which is billed as an insider's guide to the island. Rob was very impressed with it, and so were we. Their recommendations were fine, and their omissions were generally of the "they can't cover every little detail" sort.

(They also have books on Maui and Kauai.)

The flight went smoothly, although the line at Avis to pick up our rental car was very long and it took us about 45 minutes. This snag also acquainted us with another thing we hadn't expected: Hawaii in September is hot and muggy. Hot wasn't really a surprise, but it was amazingly humid all week. Thank goodness for air conditioning, not to mention pools. We got used to it well enough, and it's been mentioned that your choice of weather in Hawaii is humid or windy; I guess I prefer humid.

That said, the hotel is fine. The rooms are - as we'd read on-line - small. But this didn't really bother us since we were rarely in the room except to sleep, or to chill - literally - in the air conditioning (usually while watching TV). There was plenty of space to put our stuff, and to be fair the bathroom was fairly big. The hotel has lovely grounds, near a great beach with wonderful sunsets, and a very nice pool. It's also right next to one of the few shopping areas around, which means there are places to eat if you don't want to drive 20 miles to Kona.

We spent Thursday afternoon mainly orienting ourselves to the Kona area (and having lunch at Roy's Waikoloa Bar & Grill, which was pretty good). Gas, as advertised, is expensive - about $2.30 per gallon, which is about $0.30 more than in the Bay Area (those of you in the Midwest may find the price slightly more shocking). Also as advertised, the cheapest gas in the area is at Costco ($2.03), where were also went to get a 15-pack of bottled water, which was a very good call, as we drank all of it by the end of the trip.

We also located Wal-Mart, and did some planning for the week.

Friday: Kona

Our package also included free breakfast buffets all week at the hotel. This was good because (1) food is expensive on Hawaii; it's tough to find a dinner for under $15.00 each, and (2) the buffet was pretty good. Debbi especially liked the fresh fruit, over which we poured vanilla sauce (intended for the apple cobbler or bread pudding) and sometimes macadamias or coconut flakes. The view of the ocean and location near the koi pond was also pleasant.

And, being on the ball for a change, we wrote and mailed postcards to friends and family on the first day! Go us!

This first day we decided to go sightseeing and shopping in Kona (also known as Kailua-Kona, thanks to some naming confusion when the westerners set up shop here; apparently Kona refers to the region of the island, while Kailua is the indigenous village which existed here). It's the largest city on the big island, although Hilo also has plenty of shopping. Kona is angled a little more towards the tourists, especially in the downtown area, but that's okay since we just wanted to look and pick up a few souvenirs.

Well, for starters I bought myself a Hawaiian shirt. And later in the week I'd buy two more of them. Normally I wear polo shirts, and occasionally T-shirts. But these shirts looked nice (not too loud), were of good quality, weren't too expensive, and are cool (in the temperature sense). We also took in the view of Kailua Bay (site of the swim portion of the Ironman Triathlon), including the impressively clear water.

Another key point to mention is that the Kona side of the island is dry. It's the eastern, Hilo, side which gets most of the rain. The Kona side is also festooned with 19th-century lava flows (the 20th century flows are mostly in the south), so you'll be driving along past heavily-overgrown (if brown) land, and then through several miles of black rock with only a few bushes and scrubby plants. The lava is often all overturned and lumpy, as if it's been cultivated by some giant tool. I'm not sure why that is - maybe due to earthquakes? Or maybe long-term settling of the rock. More recent flows seem less broken up.

On the plus side, the Kona side of the island gets all the sun, and is of course where the beautiful sunsets occur. And it's where the best ocean swimming is, reportedly (we only swam in the pool, and never really tackled the ocean; next time).

Anyway, due to the heat and humidity, a popular treat in Hawaii is shaved ice. There are several shaved ice places around. The best one we tried was Ocean View in Hilo (the next day), but Scandinavian Shaved Ice in Kona is also good. Basically it's a finely shaved block of ice with flavored syrup poured over it. And it's cheap - $2 or $3 for a rather large helping. Debbi and I loved it. Of course, it wasn't new to me: Shaved ice is also very popular in New Orleans, where I went to college. I remember being bitterly disappointed when I moved to Madison and couldn't find any. So finding it here was very cool.

In the evening we drove up to Kawaihae, a shipping town a few miles north of our hotel and had dinner at the Cafe Pesto. It was pretty good, but we weren't blown away, at least compared to our other meals.

We also got into a routine of going to bed early (10-ish) and getting up early (7:30-ish) so we could make full use of the morning (which was handy because by noon it was getting pretty hot). We were pretty proud of ourselves for being able to do so!

Saturday: Kohala and Hilo

This was the one day where we bit off more than we could chew. We figured we'd head north and see some sights in Kohala, then drive east along the north shore and go to Hilo.

Well, we drove up over the Kohala volcano, which is cool mainly because as you crest it you can see the island of Maui in the distance. And when I say "in the distance" I mainly mean "it takes up about a quarter of the horizon". It's big and not far away.

Then we drove to Polulu Beach. And when I say "drove", I mean "drove to the lookout, parked, then walked downhill for about half an hour to the beach". It's not drivable, and it's not a very easy walk. It is, however, worth it. Polulu Beach is one of several black sand beaches in the island, the volcanic rock having been pounded into sand by the surf. And this beach is especially active, so it's pretty impressive if you like watching waves (and there were a few surfers there, too). We did get splashed and our legs covered in very fine black sand, which was kind of annoying since we were wearing our sneakers, but it was still fun.

This was also our tip-off that Debbi's ankle sprain has mostly healed. It bugged her a little from time-to-time during the week, but didn't really impair us in doing what we wanted to do.

Alas by the time we were done with all this and visited the Kohala Book Shop, it was 1 pm, so we skipped the rest of Kohala (we'd return a couple of times the next week), went to the hotel and changed our shoes, and drove eastward.

The drive took longer than expected. Partly because we stopped to view a lovely waterfall along the way, and partly to do the 4-mile scenic drive. Despite being along the coast, you can't really see the ocean from the drive. Rather, you're driving through tropical rainforest, and boy is it ever worth the trip. The Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens are also along the drive, although we didn't stop to see them, and never got back to visit them later (one of our biggest regrets).

Hilo... was not our cup of tea. First of all, we got there around 4 pm, and it seemed like everything in town was closing. The various boutiques along the main shopping area didn't really grab us, and the whole area had this vaguely rundown feel to it. Debbi observed that it could have been any small town in America, really. Alas.

On the plus side, Banyan Drive is worth a look. The funky-looking Banyan trees line this drive, planted mostly in the early part of the 20th century, and labelled with the name of the planter (e.g., Richard Nixon). Lili'uokalani Gardens, a Japanese-flavored strolling park on the water, is also charming and worth a stop. And we drove to Rainbow Falls, which is also quite pretty (although apparently best seen in the morning).

After this we made the long trip back to Kona and had Dinner at the Royal Thai Cafe (actually a little south of Kona, in Keauhou), which was pretty good Thai food, and less expensive than some other options.

Sunday: The South, and the Lu'au

Our plan for Sunday was to head south of Kona. This plan mostly worked out well, other than the fact that driving south is a pain in the ass. Mainly because the drive is either (1) through boring scenery, or (2) through 15 miles of twisty roads where there's always someone driving about 15 MPH slower than you want to be going, and you can't pass them. But I digress.

It's totally worth the drive, partly for the Place of Refuge. An historic Hawaiian site related to the system of traditional prohibitions, it's on a beautiful stretch of ocean, and you can see some replicas of life in the village there, and then the huge wall which separated the village from the refuge. We also got to see three sea turtles hanging out just offshore (they didn't come ashore, alas), as well as some tropical fish. It's an amazing place.

Then there's South Point, which is the southernmost point in the United States. The drive to South Point is paved the whole way, contrary to some things I've read, and only the last 4 miles of the 12 mile drive from the highway is a bit bumpy. Nothing I wouldn't take my own car on, though, never mind a rental. So have no fear of going. Along the way, stop and see the giant windmills, which make an eerie metallic sound as they spin. Wave to the cows. And then wonder at the clarity and force of the water just off South Point. It's pretty windy down there, so be aware. It's stark and damn close to barren, but it's got a strange beauty unlike anything else on the island.

(We didn't by, the way, hike over to see the green sand beach. Next time.)

On the way back we stopped at Bayview coffee, which has a terrific stand out front. The fellow manning it was friendly and helpful, and we sampled two of their coffees, then bought a pound and also some chocolate-coated coffee beans. Worth the stop.

Also worth the stop is Surfin Ass, where you can buy Donkey Balls (chocolate coated macadamia nuts). As our guidebook said, they come in varying quantities, not just pairs. Yum yum.

In the evening we went to a lu'au. We did a bit of research (mainly in our guidebook) to decide on a lu'au to go to, and decided on our own hotel's. One south of Kona sounded a bit better overall, but the guidebook thought the food at our hotel was excellent, so we figured we'd go with that and save ourselves the drive. Tickets were $67 each. It was worth it. We got to see the roasted pig taken out of the ground, and all the food was very good. We had seconds. We didn't like the poi (mashed taro root), which didn't surprise either of us. (I don't care much for squash, which this reminded me of.) And the show was good.

Monday: Coffee

We decided to take today for some downtime, and spent the morning after breakfast at the pool, up until just about noon. Then we decided to head down to the Kona area for some more shopping.

We stopped off at the couple of coffee plantations: Holualoa was a little disappointing as they only had one kind of coffee to sample, their coffee seemed more expensive than Bayview, and we didn't like it as much. We bought half a pound anyway. On the other hand, Greenwell had a very nice storefront with all their flavors of coffee available to try (and we tried most of them). They're worth a visit.

Then we went into Kona to wander around some more (and get more shaved ice). I bought two more Hawaiian shirts (at $25 each) and Debbi picked up a few items as well. I think we were fortunate in parking all week, since it seemed like we were often getting the next-to-last space. It worked out well.

In the evening we went to the Big Island Steak House near the hotel. We got reservations first, since they fill up fast, and we'd read their service could be iffy (actually I found them friendly and attentive). Their ribs are excellent, and their mixed drinks are impressive. I especially recommend the Singing Orchid, and Debbi liked the Mai Tais a lot. Be aware that it is a lot of food, and it's not cheap.

Tuesday: Volcano

Tuesday we finally headed off to the volcano. The drive is long, but worth it. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is an amazing place. The caldera of Kilauea volcano (the most active volcano in the world) is fantastic, especially considering it was massively active in the 19th century (Mark Twain wrote about it), and has erupted off and on throughout the 20th century. The recent eruptions are through a side vent (Pu'u 'O'o) and has been going on since the early 1980s. The caldera itself looks like another planet. Very eerie, especially with the steam vents puffing up all over the place.

Alas, when we arrived we learned that this was the first time in many months that there were no surface lava flows to see. One of the volunteers said he'd been out the night before, hiking two hours over difficult ground, just to see some cooling puddles. Damn. If we'd gone out the day after we arrived we might have seen a little lava flow. But basically our timing was just off. Nothing to do about it. Probably it will flare up again in a few weeks when the pressure opens another vent.

Hands down the coolest thing in the park is the Thurston Lava Tube. Lava tubes are formed by lava flows which cool off evenly on all sides, and eventually get blocked but leave an opening on the surface. Here you can walk through the first 1/10 of a mile of the tube, which is lighted and somewhat smoothed out, and then climb some stairs and head back. Or you can do what we did, which is to bring boots and flashlights, and walk the last 2/10 of a mile in pitch blackness in the section of tube which hasn't been cleaned up. As our guidebook said, you'll swear it's a lot longer than 1000 feet. Very cool, especially the hunks of rock which had broken off in several places. The walk is not hard, it's just dark.

The Chain of Craters road is also pretty neat. The various craters you pass are only so-so; the best part is stopping halfway down to go walk on a section of the old Chain of Craters road which was mostly covered with lava in the early 1970s eruption. There's some visible asphalt, with lava rock sitting on top of it for you to walk on. It's like being in some after-the-end-of-the-world movie. Weird.

There's also a hike to some petroglyphs - etchings in lava rock by prehistoric Hawaiians. The hike is moderately difficult, and the petroglyphs turned out not to be my cup of tea. (The ones we saw the next day were better.)

But overall it was a very neat trip, and definitely worth the time even if you don't see lava.

We drove through Hilo on the way back and stopped for dinner at Pescatore, which our guidebook recommended and which is an excellent Italian restaurant. This was hands-down the best meal we had in Hawaii: The quality of the food, the service, the presentation, it was all outstanding. This alone is worth a trip to Hilo, frankly (even if, like me, the rest of Hilo doesn't do it for you), and if you go to the Volcano, consider stopping here on the way home like we did.

Wednesday: A Few More Sights

We repeated our Monday morning routine of breakfast followed by a morning at the pool, and then headed out to see a few things we'd missed. Alas, it was brutally hot that day, we didn't bring enough water, and none of the sights lived up to expectations.

The petroglyphs near our hotel were more impressive than those at the volcano, but still, they're pretty repetitive and not really any more than simple carvings in rock. Yes, they are historically noteworthy, but not terrific as tourist viewing.

Lapakahi State Historical Park, in Kohala, is the remnants of an historical Hawaiian fishing village, apparently abandoned only in the 20th century. Nonetheless, other than some stone walls and a couple of recreations, there's not much to see. It's hard from what's there to visualize what things might have been like. The view of the ocean is lovely, though, and apparently there's some good snorkeling there.

Lastly, Pu'ukohala Heiau is the place of worship built by King Kamehameha I to help unify the big island under his rule. It worked (his opposition was apparently fearful, credulous or stupid enough to show up at the place's consecration where he was promptly done away with), but the place is - like the other Heiaus - basically a big pile of rocks in the shape of the stylized platform. Like the petroglyphs, it's a noteworthy thing but as a site for tourists it doesn't offer a lot.

Those sights seen, we headed into Kona for some more shaved ice. While there we saw a large gecko - large to us, anyway, about six inches long, and bright green. It was just hanging out on the sidewalk, darting to the edge when someone walked by. Pretty cool, actually.

In the evening we made our only return trip to a restaurant - to the Big Island Steak House, mainly because we liked their drinks so much, though their ribs were also good enough for a repeat engagement. (The waiter got me good when I was finishing mine, asking me if I was ready for the other half now! Oof.) Debbi says their pork chops are better than their top sirloin.

Thursday: Home

Thursday we got up even a little earlier than usual, and happily did our usual breakfast-and-pool thing. Then it was up to pack our stuff and drive to the airport. Our vacation was over.

A word of warning: Flying out of Kona is a big freaking pain in the ass. Not only do you have to put your luggage through a scanner that the Hawaii agricultural department mans, but then you have to check in, and then you have to put your luggage through another check by the airline security folks. Other airports combine checking in with this latter scan, or perform the scan in the back after you check in. Not here. It's just one line after another. Aargh. And then you and your carry-ons need to get through security. And then we had to put our carry-ons through a second scanner right before the gate (why? Who knows? But they did have a sign up saying "Yes, you have to do this again!!", which was amusing). Then, finally, you can board your plane.

I guess the moral of this story is that getting to your hotel and from your hotel on your trip to Hawaii is an unpleasant experience, but actually being in Hawaii is wonderful. Everything has its price, I suppose.

All-in-all we loved our trip, and we're already contemplating going back sometime. There's more than enough on the big island to occupy you for a full week. There were a few things that could have been better, or that we could have done differently, but that's life. Debbi says it was her best vacation ever (I don't really rank mine; I've had a few great ones, and this is definitely up there). If you ever get the chance, go.

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