Pacific Islands Travel 2004 Part Two: Big Island Sightseeing

The continuation of my “last hurrah” whirlwind three week trip to three Pacific Islands.  This is the second part of the Big Island — when my German travel companion Carmen and I finally stopped screwing around, finally figured out our transportation issues, and started to actually see some of the sights.

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Rainbow Falls

As Carmen and I drove back up from the lava coast, the clouds descended around us again, and dusk descended.  We drove to the small town of Volcano, a lush rainforest oasis of deep green ferns and dark red flowers engulfed in a light mist and chilly fog.  We planned to stay the Holo Holo Inn but had no map with it on, and with the growing dark and fog it was difficult to see the road signs.  We stopped in the small general store to ask directions.  The store had a very small town feel to it; a real general store stocked with just about every necessity.  Not a huge selection mind you, but enough for the artists who live in the area to not have to drive far for groceries.  I asked the woman behind the counter if she knew where I could find the inn.  She said she didn’t know.  But the tall white-bearded man who had just made his purchases, and was on a first name basis with the woman, told her she surely did.  He said it was just off the road near the Japanese school, and he says some Hawaiian road names.  She disagreed and said it is off another road.  He kindly tells her she is wrong and proceeds to tell us how to get there.  The woman good-naturally laughs at herself for not knowing the location.  The whole conversation had that warm feeling that comes from people in a small town knowing each other well, of regulars and long-time store proprietors joking with one another.

As Carmen and I drove up to the wooden house next to the Japanese school, it seemed dark.  The front driveway was littered with all kinds of garden and mechanical tools.  Carmen took one look at the place and said maybe we should just go.  It did seem almost deserted.  But when we rang the bell, the door was opened by a small blonde boy followed by a young Asian woman with delicate features.  In heavily accented English she welcomed us inside and showed us around.  The place was really beautiful.  All made of rich warm wood.  Wooden floors, walls, and ceilings.  Though it was chilly outside, it was a nice temperature inside, enough for bare feet upon the floorboards.  Our wooden bunk beds topped with heavy warm blankets.  The kitchen had a high ceiling, with large Japanese paper lamps hanging from the ceiling over a wooden table.  The cupboards were well stocked with beautiful Japanese ceramic plates, bowls, and cups – all for the hostelers use.  It felt very homey.

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Lava Trees State Park

On my fourth day on the Big Island we drove the rest of the way around the stopping to see many sites along the way.  The weather outside of Volcano was gorgeous.  Warm, crystal blue skies.  We drove first to Lava Trees State Park.  The lava “trees” were formed when a volcanic eruption some 200 years ago swept through the forest.  The lava climbed up the trees burning them but then hardening in the shape of the former tree trunks- making hollow lava cones of varying heights.  The drive, once we found the tricky turn, was gorgeous.  Huge trees on both sides dusting the two-lane road with leaves, and just a touch of sunbeams filtering through.  It felt a bit more like a drive in New England than in Hawaii.  The forest itself seemed almost primordial with tall, old, moss-covered trees.  A short circle trail led us around the ghostly lava trees.

We headed next to Rainbow Falls just outside Hilo.  The falls were absolutely beautiful – perhaps one of the best falls I have ever seen.  They were tall and thick, falling into a lush pool at the bottom, with a large cave behind them – supposedly the one-time home of the goddess Maui.  At the top of the falls, just before the water gushed over the edge, there was a large boulder which split the falls into two ribbons of water.  In the early morning or afternoon, if conditions are right, there is often a rainbow across the water, but unfortunately, we were not there at the right time.

On next to Akaka Falls State Park via a 4-mile scenic drive.  At the falls we were rewarded with two falls, much taller than Rainbow falls, though thinner as well.  At the top of the trail to the falls we sat at a picnic table and had our lunch of bread and cheese and fruit.

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Waipo Valley lookout

On next to Waipo Valley lookout.  The drives were not long, perhaps an hour here or an hour there, but very pleasant.  At the Waipo lookout we stood on a cliff above the Waipo Valley and the sea, with a tremendous view of the undulating cliff coastline, the sparkling sea, and the beginning of the low valley.  There are some good treks and horse riding in the valley but they are costly, so we did not have anything planned.  But seeing the view was worth the drive.

We then drove through the town of Waimea with a magnificent view of Mauna Kea rising in the background, it dwarfed everything else on the island, rising quickly to its height of 13,800 feet.  The road ended at the town of Hawi, where the original statue of King Kamehameha the Great, the first king to unite the Hawaiian Islands – born on the Big Island – stands. (And in one of those amazing coincidences of life, I happened to be watching Hawaii 5-0 while editing this story, and the episode happened to be one in which they feature this original statue.  I was thinking, I just read about this…in my own story!)

Then we drove along the coastal road another hour to the Pineapple Park Hostel to the town of Captain Cook (where the famous navigator who discovered the Sandwich, or Hawaiian Islands, met his end).  Carmen and I stepped into the reception area of Pineapple Park at 8:30 pm.  The office was closed but there was a sign saying to ring the bell for after-hours arrivals.  Unfortunately, on the other side of the shuttered reception window was another sign indicating the hours were 7am to 7 pm and that THIS IS HAWAII – WE ARE NOT OPEN AT ALL HOURS.  The sign did not inspire confidence as I hesitantly pushed the bell and cringed.  A Japanese woman came from the hallway behind us, saying in a decidedly unwelcome tone “What do you want?”  I explained we wanted to stay.  “How many of you?”  The two of us were standing right in front of her…Of course, she made a point of telling us the usual hours are 7 to 7 and made such a case out of it as if we were really being a bother and she was being tremendously nice to let us stay.  I had a hard time not rolling my eyes.

On the wall of our room was a list of the hostel rules.  Some made some sense, some I found a bit humorous (copied word for word):

  1. No abusive- belligerent or disruptive behavior tolerated (must fit in)
  2. No drugs of any kind – alcohol in moderation
  3. Must be a traveler and have a picture I.D.
  4. Quiet hours 10 pm – 6 am; kitchen, TV, up stairs lounge closed after 10 pm
  5. Must have clean clothes and no offensive smell
  6. Must clean up immediately after using kitchen
  7. Five minute shower
  8. Do not take others food or drink

You will be asked to leave on the first violation – ALOHA

I had to crack up at the “ALOHA” in capital letters at the end of the list.  I hardly felt the Aloha Spirit emanating from this hostel.  What would happen if I haven’t had a chance to do laundry (i.e. have dirty clothes) or I do not fit in with the others?  And the five-minute shower?  Well, without the lock or even being able to close the shower door completely, I imagine I will be taking the quickest shower ever.

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Hanging with some Hawaiian tiki friends

On the morning of the fifth day, Carmen and I woke up early to head out to swim with dolphins.  There was a small bay a short drive away where dolphins were often spotted swimming.  I did not really feel comfortable swimming with dolphins, but I thought it might be nice to see them.  Besides, I knew in the water I would not have my glasses and would probably not see a dolphin at all.  At the bay, a man pointed out some dolphins in the water.  I didn’t see any dolphins, only human beings floundering about in the bay.  But I took his word for it.  We entered the bay from a rocky shore; I am talking about mini boulders.   They made it difficult to get in the water.  We nearly fell a couple of times.  Carmen pulled on her snorkeling mask and paddled off.  I stood waist high in the surf, feeling the pull of the waves as the water rushed back to the sea.  It was a strong pull, nearly pulling me off balance.  The crashing in of the waves was also strong.  I tried to stand my ground.

Seemingly out of nowhere, a large wave knocks into us both.  I was tumbling underwater over and over.  After some 20, 30 seconds, I do not know how long, I stood up.  I called out to Carmen to see if she was okay, she was also calling for me.  Her flip-flops floated by.  Even my strapped sandals had been ripped off forcibly by the wave.  I think my hair was standing straight up, matted with sand.  There was sand in my ears.  Later I found a pound of sand pushed into the top of my swimsuit.  Carmen and I both agreed our little foray into the ocean was over for the morning.  We violated the five-minute shower rule back at the hostel.

Our next, and last, sightseeing stop was the Historical National Park Pu’uhonua o Honaunau (which means Place of Refuge at Honaunau).  This was an area where the Hawaiian ali’i (royalty) lived.  It was also a place where those who broke the strict rules of traditional Hawaiian conduct might find redemption – after swimming across shark infested waters.  In times of war, women, children, those unable to fight or wounded soldiers could also find refuge here.  In times of war in Hawaiian times all people were considered fair game in battle, and only those located in compounds of sacred refuge could be spared.  Sounds brutal.

hawaii 5Nowadays the Historical Park is peaceful.  The wall of the compound is all that still exists from traditional times beside white sand, a glittering sea, and reconstructed straw huts.  In one large boat house, an old native Hawaiian carves the traditional totem or Ki’i that guard the entrance to the landing lagoon reserved only for ali’i, and the site of some reconstruction, from evil spirits.  In the small lagoon a sea turtle swam around, another basked in the sun.

The following day I took Carmen to the airport and return the rental car; we said our farewells (though we remain Facebook friends to this day).  Later the same day, I embarked on my own flight away from the Big Island, leaving behind a magnificent view, but looking forward to the next leg of my journey….

 

 

Pacific Islands Travel 2004 Part One: Big Island Beginnings

Every so often I dip into the email stories I wrote during my pre-State department, pre-mom travels.  I review, edit, and re-package them.  In the summer of 2004 after completing my six-month research assistantship at the Pacific Forum-CSIS in Honolulu, Hawaii, I embarked on a three-week trip to the Big Island, Rarotonga in the Cooks Islands, and then Samoa.  After the trip I would participate in my assistantship final seminar, graduate from my Master’s program, and start looking for work.  I figured this trip would be my last hoorah for some time, as I would soon join the world of government work.  The trip would inspire me in ways I had not expected, and eventually led to my first published op-ed and my second published academic article, both on Chinese influence in the South Pacific.  My stories are sometimes far more about the vagaries of travel – the transportation hiccups, the interesting people one meets on the road, and unexpected adventures – than about the places themselves. 

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Carmen and I stop for a break from Volcano National Park on the way to Kona

My flight left Honolulu for Hilo, on the eastern side of the Big Island, at 10 in the morning and landed an hour later.  I was at the hostel by noon.  As it was a Sunday, there was little to do in Hilo, with most shops closed.  I only walked around a little, had some lunch, and did some grocery shopping.

I met another woman at the hostel who struck me as odd.  She was from north central England, with a thick accent I could barely understand.  What really struck me is her plans to travel around the world for a year.  When I asked her about restaurants near the hostel, she told me she did not know because, as she said, she “did not eat foreign foods.”  I wonder how she will ever survive her trip.  I would love to run into her a year from now and see how she faired.

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Lush green rainforest of Volcano National Park – Hawaii is not all beaches

On Monday I was up early, trying to figure out what I would do that day.  I was thinking maybe a helicopter ride over the volcano, but was still unsure I wanted to pay the price.  I thought perhaps I might rent a car and drive around on my own or to Mauna Kea, but I learned that to return a car to Kona, on the other side of the island (a whole 2.5 hours away), I would be charged an additional $85 for the drop-off charge; and one cannot drive to Mauna Kea in a rental car because the road is bad and the tour companies forbid it.  A rival hostel in town offered stargazing tours to Mauna Kea for the incredible price of $96, even though the stargazing program on the mountain is actually free!  The idea of them raking in nearly $1000 for 10 people with only the cost of gas there and back, perhaps $30 for a van, made me a feel annoyed and I was thus reluctant to give them a call.

On my first day I had met Carmen, a paramedic in the German army; she also wanted to go to Kona.   After two 6-month tours in Kosovo she was granted this five-month holiday.  She asked me what my plans were for the day, suggesting we could go to Kona together.  However, after the unfortunate news from the rental car agencies, we sat wondering what was best to do.  There is but one bus on the island that travels from Hilo to Kona once a day, from 2:30 arriving about 5:30.  It seemed I would have no plan for Monday and much of Tuesday would be spent on the bus.  I was beginning to think my five days on the Big Island would be a total bust.  Then in walked Sharifa – another woman staying at the hostel – doing her masters in Environmental Science at Yale and studying tropical plants, with field research on the Koa tree in Volcano National Park.  More importantly, Sharifa had a rental car, was driving to Volcano National Park, and then onto Kona to renew her car at the airport there.  And she asked if we might like to go along.   Carmen and I practically leapt to our luggage in a single bound to begin the frantic packing.  Sharifa said she would meet us outside in the parking lot across the street.  Packing was done in record time and soon Carmen and I and our bags were cozily ensconced in Sharifa’s beautiful black convertible and we were motoring down the road.

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I fancied myself quite the black and white photographer – this is one of my favorites –  ropey pahoehoe lava

Because Sharifa needed only to pick up a research permit at the Volcano National Park, we had only 30 minutes in the visitor center and a walk on a short trail overlooking one of the craters.   The rich volcanic soil and the high elevation create a lush rain forest atmosphere, and where there are rain forests, there is most certainly rain.  And it rained.  The clouds rolled in across the crater and it disappeared in the fog.  It grew cold and we huddled for some time with warm drinks near the fireplace at the Volcano Inn and looked at the photographs of magnificent eruptions, which lined the wood walls.  Sharifa needed to get her permit and be in Kona to renew her car rental before 5 o’clock and so we piled into the car and headed off.

Once we were some ten minutes out of the park, the sky cleared, the convertible top came down, the CD player was turned up, and we barreled down the road in high spirits.  On one side of the road dark grey glistening volcanic rock sloped upwards to the clouds heading for the peak of Mauna Loa.  On the other side the same moonscape rock dropping downwards towards the sea.  A fascinating landscape with sometimes dramatic vistas appearing before us of the dark blue sea alongside cooled coal-grey igneous rock.  At times it grew cool and would sprinkle some rain and the top would go up on the car.  The wind would pick up and we would feel chilly.  Not exactly the weather one might expect in Hawaii, but the Big Island temperature and climate is amazingly diverse.  In the winter, even the peak of Mauna Kea is covered in snow while the beachside with be basked in warm sun and temps in the 80s.

Hawaii 3As we bid Sharifa farewell at the airport, I made a reservation for my own rental car the next day.  This was a big deal for me as I could not recall the last time I had driven a car.  The Kona hostel, located in a residential area, was not easy to find because there was not a sign at all.   The manager had a weird laugh after just about everything he said.  He was young, around 30 years of age, and although he laughed, he did not seem pleasant.  Carmen immediately told me in the room she did not want to stay there another night.  I also felt bad karma from that guy.  The hostel was new and clean, but the guy made the whole thing feel like an episode of the Twilight Zone.  Carmen and I walked down to the supermarket to get fixings for dinner and spent an early evening in the hostel reading, showering, watching tv, and eating.

We were up the next day to head over the airport to pick up the rental car.  We were out of the hostel before 9 am; we did not say anything to the manager as we left.  The tricky part was getting to the airport.  Although just seven miles out of town, there is no bus because, of course, America.  We tried to flag down a taxi but the first one told us we had to have a reservation.  We asked if he could call in and tell a taxi to pick us up and he said he would, but 15 minutes later and two taxis had passed us in the opposite direction without turning around or stopping.  So, we walked to a gas station.  We asked the woman behind the counter if she would call for us and she did, but it turned out that one company was so busy they were not picking up their phone, the other said it might be an hour.  I thought of Mr. Weird Manager back at the hostel and kept checking my watch.  I had a feeling he would not like it if we checked-out AFTER the check-out time.  There was a man standing in line next to us and I asked him if he was heading by the airport and if he could give us a lift.  A minute later he signals us from the car a thumbs up and Carmen and I get in.

A line awaited us at the rental car counter.  We were back at the hostel by 10:15 to find the door to the hostel locked and neither of our keys working.  Suddenly Mr. Weird pops up from nowhere behind us and in an unfriendly tone tells us our keys will not work.  He opens the door telling us he had already removed our things from the room because of the 10 AM check-out time.  He makes an unpleasant comment about the amount of luggage we have, followed by his disturbing laugh.  He even helps us to take our luggage to the car, but not out of any kindness I am sure.  He seemed quite eager to be rid of us, and Carmen and I felt quite happy to pull out of the drive and see the back of that guy.

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Lava pouring into the sea

We headed back to Volcano National Park and drove around the crater road stopping to take pictures of the lava flow formations, of steam rising from craters, and sniff the sulfuric air.  The air was cold, the sky grey and overcast.  Light misty rain fell.  However, as we drove down Chain of Craters road towards the sea, the clouds disappeared and the blue sky and sea appeared below.  It was a beautiful drive.  The sides of both roads were covered with undulating hard lava flows from the past several decades.  The sight was almost surreal.  The ocean was the most incredible blue.  At the bottom of the road, alongside the sea we parked our car.  The road once continued along the ocean, but with the more recent lava flows it had been closed.  We walked over the hard lava on the road, occasionally coming across buried road signs.  At the end of the pedestrian trail, where visitors could proceed no further as the lava, though grey and cooled was nonetheless still molten under its crust and still inching toward the sea, we could observe the red-hot lava pouring into the sea.  Great billows of steam rose up as it dripped off the island into the sea.  Here I was standing just 100 feet from an active lava flow.  Incredible.

 

Why Not Waikiki? (Home Leave Phase Two)

So I began the second part of my home leave fresh. Er, well, not quite. My fasciitis in my left heel was acting up, my ulcerative colitis was active, I’d developed a chest cold with an unfortunate cough, and it seemed I had sunburned my lips somewhere during my drive. (I blame Texas) Yet, knowing I would not be driving every other day and the cats would not be joining as they would be enjoying the rest of their summer sniffing breezes on window sills at my aunt and uncle’s house, I WAS feeling fresher despite the ailments.

So less than four days after returning to Virginia, C and I boarded a plane for Honolulu. The ten hour flight flew by.

Just kidding.

Three hours into the ten hour flight I was again wondering what my state of mind had been as I plotted this trip. I am sure the lure of the islands played some part. Blessed with very fair freckled skin and reddish hair, I am no beach bunny, and would never have expected a love affair with Hawaii to develop. Yet I have visited the State (and four of the islands) at least seven times, including living on Oahu for 6 months while working as a Research Assistant on Asia Pacific security at the Pacific Forum CSIS in 2004. So, it made sense, in fact it felt imperative I visit this summer with C. And hey, it’s Hawaii, so why not?

I had decided on Oahu, and much more specifically Waikiki, for our trip as I had read it is the most toddler friendly place on the islands. There is the zoo and aquarium right in Waikiki and of course the beach. A hotel with a pool would round out our busy schedule. Though many sites will tell one the “must sees” with a toddler include the Dole Plantation and Sea Life Park and that both are “near” Waikiki, they most certainly are not, especially without a car. I had no intention of renting a car and either renting or dragging along a child seat just to visit these places. And a quick search of bus schedules informed me a ride to either attraction would be a “quick” hour and a half. ONE WAY! I have been to both attractions before and C is too young to know she is missing anything. So it was easy to knock those off the list. On this trip I was going to keep things simple.

We landed just after 1pm Honolulu time. So it’s maybe 5 or 6 hours behind what my body thought it might be (I cannot be sure what time my body was operating on after out drive) It’s after 3 by the time we are checked in and nearly 9 in my head. I woke at 5:30 am and did not sleep at all on the plane, so I’m sleepy. I’m wondering again if this was a good plan.

I stock up on some food items at the ABC Store downstairs. Then C starts jumping up and down yelling “Beach! Beach! Beach!” so though it feels like nearly midnight I take her. Watching her enthusiastically testing the sand with her toes and screaming with delight when the surf approaches and catches her and I know this was a great decision. I love Hawaii.

We wake up at 2:30 am and eat and shower and then head to the beach for sunrise. Once again the pure joy and enthusiasm with which my daughter greets the beach is affirmation that we are where we should be. As the sun rises in the overcast sky and the iconic shape of Diamond Head reveals itself, I think if we do nothing else all week but rise for sunset and play on the beach, it is enough. I find this almost startling as I am not one who finds relaxing easy.

We make it to four sunrises and two sunsets, and in my opinion, that’s pretty darn good. I take C to the aquarium and the zoo and the children’s museum. I take her over to the Hilton, too, to see the penguins and flamingos only to discover all the penguins have been sent to Baltimore and the flamingos are just gone. C does not know what she is missing and is delighted with the ducks, turtles, and carp. Five years ago if you had asked me if a one week trip to Oahu would have included the aquarium, zoo, and children’s museum I would have laughed.

I also manage to work out five mornings. FIVE! I book C into the Japanese-run daycare at the Sheraton, just 5 minutes walk from our hotel. It’s a pricey at $25 per hour with a two hour minimum, but it is SO worth it. C does not want to leave at the end of day one and cannot take her shoes off fast enough to play on subsequent days. And me? I feel a tad guilty leaving her, a plump of pride that she takes to it so easily, and a rush of excitement that I will have TWO WHOLE HOURS to myself. In those five days I manage 60 minutes cycling, 110 minutes elliptical, and a total of 14 miles running. And most days I pick C up, she’s slumped over in her stroller asleep before I can get her back to our hotel. Hello nap time! I manage to start and finish THREE books.

Additionally, an upside to being the older single mom with a young toddler staying in Waikiki is that we are not approached by a single tour our timeshare person. I actually start to get a bit suspicious that we are not stopped even once. We must not fit the timeshare target demographic and I know we do not fit the luau, catamaran cruise, submarine, Pearl Harbor, helicopter, or round island bus tour type either. I have done all those things in Hawaii before, including the timeshare tours, so it’s quite refreshing!

With the warm air, cool trade winds, glorious sunrises and sunsets, quality time with C as well as time to myself…we have reached near-Nirvana levels.

It was tough to leave. Yet the oversold flight we volunteered to get off of and the $400 flight certificates and the upgrade to first I received in return made up for it just a tad.

On to the next phase.