Okay, okay. I know I promised that I would keep you all updated on our travels, but that was before I found out we would be going non-stop, all day, every day for the last four days. Any time we’ve been here at the condo since early Friday morning, it’s been to shower, sleep, and get organized for the next outing. This evening, after four full days of exploring the Big Island, we’ve come back early to re-group and get ready to fly to Oahu tomorrow afternoon. Finally, I have a bit of time to write and get you all caught up. I don’t have time to go into great detail, but I will give you an overview of what we’ve been doing.

Friday was our only truly leisurely morning on the lanai. Oh sure, we’ve eaten breakfast out there every morning because what kind of idiots would we be if we didn’t, but our morning meal has become more of a planning session than a relaxing repast. With maps, tourist magazines, and Fodor’s spread out before us, we plan our daily forays with a level of precision that would put most military strategists to shame. Our efforts have paid off. In four days, we’ve covered nearly every corner of this island. That’s not to say that we’ve seen everything. Far from it; however, we have gotten our money’s worth. That’s all I’m saying.

Because our door-to-door travel time getting from KC to Kailua-Kona on Thursday promised to be a nearly 24-hour affair, we agreed weeks ago that Friday would be a day of rest and relaxation. Ha! Excitement and adrenaline got the better of us, and we were out the door before lunchtime, headed into town.

Our first stop was a locally owned restaurant in the shopping district along the waterfront. While our noon meal was nothing to blog about, the quaint little oceanside city of Kailua-Kona is. Shops, galleries, and open-air restaurants line the narrow winding road that runs along the coast. Since few sidewalks exist, visitors and locals alike walk single file along the edge of the pavement as they go about their business while locals sit along the seawall watching the tourists parade by in their goofy hats and loud Hawaiian shirts. A few of the more industrious locals weave hats out of reeds or strum guitars as they watch the world go by, but most just sit and enjoy the show.

Downtown Kailua-Kona

After lunch we did a bit of wandering ourselves, stopping first in an art gallery, then the grounds of St. Michael’s Catholic Church, and finally at the flea market where we loaded up on some exotic local fruits, including dragon fruit, rambutans, and papayas. After a quick run back to the condo, we returned to a well-reviewed restaurant (thanks to the restaurant-finding application on Carey’s iPod) in Kailua-Kona to enjoy dinner on their open-air patio perched on piers above the water. The drinking of fruity alcoholic beverages with little umbrellas ensued.

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Rambutans

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Dragon fruit

Our Saturday morning started early because we were heading across the island to see the volcano. To get there, we traveled south along the Kona Coast, stopping as we went to see Kealakekua Bay and St. Benedict’s Painted Church.

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Kealakekua Bay

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St. Benedict's Painted Church

As we rounded the southern tip of the island, we got off the main highway and headed even further south down a bumpy mostly one-lane road (Hertz is going to love us) to South Point (Ka Lae) the southern-most tip of the island which is also the southern-most tip of the United States. Talk about windswept and desolate. You feel like you’re literally clinging to the edge of the world, but, oh my word, is it beautiful.

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The road to Ka Lae (South Point)

At some point in the last twenty or so years, some enterprising soul thought to erect a wind farm to capture the gales roaring across the peninsula, but today most of the tall, ghostly white turbines are abandoned and rusting. Only one row of newer looking windmills still spin in the wind. We don’t know why, but there you are.

The rutted narrow road leading to South Point ends at a parking area more than a quarter of a mile up a rather steep incline from the water, so we all piled out and started hiking. I’m so glad we did. The sea was at low tide, so as we clamored over the hardened lava flow lining the beach, we found numerous tide pools full of small fish and tiny crabs.

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Ka Lae (South Point)

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Exploring the tide pools on Ka Lae

Our next stop was at a black sand beach on the east side of the island called Punalu’u Beach Park where we saw a big ol’ sea turtle sunning himself, doing his best to ignore all the tourists who were flapping around him, snapping pictures.

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Sunbathing sea turtle

After another hour or so of driving, we could see the plume of smoke rising from Kilauea and could smell the sulphur. Only a few minutes later we arrived at what the GPS was telling us was the entrance to the park. It was closed! In a bit of a panic, we tuned the car radio to the park’s information station and learned that the volcano’s sulphur emissions are currently two to four times levels considered safe, so the National Park Service had closed the downwind half of the road that runs around the rim of the volcano. Luckily for us and everyone else atop Kilauea that day, the upwind portion of the park was still open. Hazzah! We hurried to that entrance and to the visitor’s center. At this point, I could write forever about what we saw and experience at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park—I think all five of us would hardily agree that we enjoyed a once-in-a-lifetime experience—but I could never do it all justice in the short time I have to write this post, but I will give you a short synopsis and then post pictures.

In a nutshell: we stood at the rim of the caldera where the plume we saw as we approached the park was rising hundreds of feet into the sky; we saw steam pouring from vents all around us and even got to stand right over a couple of the vents and feel the heat rising from the earth’s interior; we walked through the Thurston Lava Tube, “a lighted prehistoric cavelike tube”  where “several hundred years ago a river of red hot lava rushed through” on its way to the sea; and we walked nearly a mile across a hardened lava field in the pitch dark (aided only by dinky little flashlights) to see fiery lava flowing down the side of the volcano, through the vegetation where trees exploded in its path, and finally into the ocean where massive towers of glowing red and orange smoke rose into the night sky. It was spectacular. It was breath-taking. It was unbelievable. And, please note, when I say “we,” I mean all five of us. Ruth did it all. She’s a ROCK STAR!

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The Kilauea caldera

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A steam vent

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Thurston Lava Tube

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Lava flowing down the mountain

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Trees bursting into flames

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Lava spilling into the sea

It was nearly midnight by the time we got back over the mountains (volcanoes) and into bed, but we were up early on Sunday because Ruth, Janie, and Carole wanted to go to mass before we headed out to explore the Hilo side of Hawaii. While the three of them went into Kailua-Kona to attend mass at St. Michael’s, the nearly 160-year-old church we’d seen on Friday, a church where half the mass is done in Hawaiian, Carey and I did some research and mapped our route for the day.

They were back by 10:30 and we were headed to Hilo. This time, instead of going around the bottom of the island, we headed toward the top and crossed over on the north side of Mauna Kea, the tallest volcano on the island. Although it has not erupted in nearly 4,500 years, it is still considered an active volcano.

The Hilo side of the island is wetter than the Kona side, so it’s more tropical and lush. Hundreds of waterfalls flow from the mountaintops on that side of the island, many of which can be seen just driving down the highway. But we wanted to see a waterfall up close, so we stopped in Akaka Falls State Park to see one of the most dazzling and accessible falls (many require a strenuous hike or a four-wheel-drive vehicle to get to) on that part of the island. Spilling more than 400 feet to the floor of a steamy tropical rainforest filled with banyan trees, banana trees, two- and three-story tall bamboo shoots as thick as a weightlifter’s thigh, and hundreds of tropical plants and orchids of every shape and color, Akaka Falls is…is…well, shoot, I’m running out of adjectives. Some things you just have to see for yourself.

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Akaka Falls

After our stroll through the rainforest, we headed into Hilo with the intent of going to a botanical garden, but the garden was closed. We have no idea why, but this is Hawaii. Islanders seem to close things when it suits them. Guide books be damned. Probably a good day for surfing or fishing. Who knows. We weren’t too upset though. Short of having labels to tell us what we’d been looking at back at the Falls, we’d already walked through a spectacular botanical garden…even though—until a German tourist set us straight—we thought the blooms on the banana tree we were ogling and taking pictures of were some kind of an orchid. Somehow we missed the big bunches of bananas hanging nearby. Hey, give us a break. How many banana trees have you seen growing in Kansas!?

We noodled around with the idea of stopping to do some shopping in Hilo, but after the extremely late night the previous evening, we decided to make our way back to the other side of the island and eat dinner closer to the condo. Once again, Carey and some gee-whiz application on her iPod found us a great place to eat.

Monday, Ruth got a quick hit of Walmart and Target as we went screaming through both in search of aqua socks and sun hats. I don’t think she was very pleased about being rushed through her favorite haunts so quickly, but we were on a mission. We were heading to a local coffee plantation and then to the beach.

Compared to the other islands in the chain, there aren’t many sand beaches on the Big Island, but the ones that are here are gorgeous. For example, the Big Island has the only green sand beach in the world. Unfortunately, we were unable to go because it can only be accessed via an hour-and-a-half-long hike. Please note, if you plan on visiting the Big Island, rent a four-wheel drive and bring your hiking shoes. Many of the most raved about sites are hard to get to.

Anyway, for our outing on Monday, we chose a beach with easy access on the northwest shore called Hapuna Beach. It was glorious: white sand, rolling surf, and palm trees lining the beach. Because of the other activities we had planned for the day, we didn’t bring our suits, but we waded in as far as our capris, shorts, or skirts would allow. Not surprisingly, we walked out of the surf dripping wet from thighs down, smiling like idiots, sand between our toes. Even Ruth got in. Really. I have pictures. Look!

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Ruth ventures in...slowly

From the beach, we headed up to Kawaihae Harbor for a late lunch and a bit of shopping and then back to the condo to get ready to leave tomorrow…which is where we are now. If all goes as planned, Ruth, Janie, and Carole will be up and out the door early to cram in as much shopping as they can manage before we have to head to the airport. Carey and I will be holding down lounge chairs at the pool overlooking the ocean. Hey, someone’s got to do it.

Aloha!

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