Ahhhh Hawaii! How different my view of your majestic shorelines, vog covered volcanic hills, pristine reefs, lush green hiking trails and friendly residents is now that I've visited, circumnavigated and learned so much more about the "Big Island" than I could ever grasp from books and videos.
A couple of weeks ago an opportunity came up I couldn't let pass. A close cousin to me, like a brother, invited me to join him for a week's vacation to Kona, Hawaii. The trip was all paid for, non-refundable, and the unfortunate event of a break up with his girlfriend left him in need of a good friend to explore the island. All I had to do was find last minute airfare, which seemed impossible until I got some amazing help from some other family members that happen to work for the airlines. Before I knew it I found myself 4,000 miles from Florida climbing down the steps onto the tarmac of the Kona International Airport.
I never thought of any of the Hawaiian islands being my "dream" destination. I've been fortunate enough to travel around the world and I've seen some pretty amazing places. Knowing what's out there, I have a pretty long list of higher priority destinations than Hawaii. After this trip my attitude is definitely different. I want to go back and I want to go back soon! In a week's time, Robert and I drove nearly 500 miles and circumnavigated the largest island in the chain. Here's my best attempt to portray our adventure in the following photo essay.
We spent our first full day driving north from Kona and then south exploring the coastline and beaches. The first beach was Kekaha Kai State Park. I thought I forgot my snorkel at the hotel so I spent the entire time swimming around with no snorkel only to learn later it was in my backpack on the beach. Oh well, we had a blast. I decided to attempt a "rock run" in a sandy spot surrounded by reef that was about 20 feet deep. Leaving my fins with Robert, I dove down and picked up the biggest rock I could find and ran across the patch. I think I made it about 15 feet and then my lungs felt like they were going to freaking explode so I dropped the rock and broke for the surface. I've seen Hawaiians doing this in surf videos and I had to try it. I think it would be an amazing way to cross train for surfing. Talk about building up lung capacity while exerting yourself and trying to stay relaxed all at the same time. Three times of doing this and I was exhausted! I wish we had clear enough water here in Florida. I'd do it every day.
The second day we drove to the northeast side of the island to the Waipio Valley. The landscape changes a ton we crossed over to the windward side of the island. It goes from a dryer arid landscape to lush green tropical vegetation. We rented an AWD vehicle and were surprised they wouldn't let us drive down the valley unless we had true 4-wheel drive. That's ok, because we decided we would walk down and back out. To hell with the car! I got so excited about the sheer beauty of this place I had to do a handstand next to the cliff!
After several hours of hiking around the Waipio Valley we stopped and ate our lunch. There are numerous finger valleys along the shoreline. If I lived here I'd backpack in for several days at a time and camp out. It'd also be an amazing place to sea kayak around the bluffs and into each valley/beach.
Robert and I could see a waterfall miles away up into the valley from our lunch spot on the beach. I wanted to backtrack to the main road and try to find another trail to it. Robert all about continuing on a marked trail named "King's trail" that appeared to go along the opposite side of the valley hoping it would cross over and we could get to the base of the waterfall. Well, this didn't quite work out. We hiked miles and miles before giving up as there was no clear way to get across the valley. We were told that in Hawaii you can go anywhere as long as you don't cross a fence or cross sacred ground. There were tons of fences. It was an amazing part of the day with all kinds of fruits growing everywhere and a beautiful tropical canopy pictured above.
Looking back into the Waipio Valley from the river mouth at the beach.
Robert picked up an avocado. It was so ripe it was almost purple. He thought it was a pear because of the shape. I told him it was an avocado. Not believing me he poked his fingers into it and got a big green surprise. We split it and ate it there on the spot. Hands down.... one of the best avocados I've ever had!
This is far as we got to that waterfall. We snorkeled around a bit in the river and saw some crawfish-like creatures. The day was getting late and it was time to hike back to the vehicle.
Nobody said it would be easy. 1,400 feet elevation gain in .9 of a mile with not one switch back. The sign said it was a 25% grade. I believe it and my calves were freaking pissed at me the next day. Seriously, it felt like I had ran a race or something. I am NOT used to hills like that coming from Florida. I went on MapMyRun.com and attempted to plot out our hike. It came to about 10 miles.
Next we drove to the southeast side of the island. This is the land of volcanoes with the major city being Hilo, were we stayed one night at the Green Turtle Inn. I wouldn't recommend it for it's accommodations, but for price and the knowledge the owner can share with you it's unbeatable. The photo above was from a beach north of Hilo near Wainaku. I wanted to surf it really bad, but Robert doesn't surf, I didn't have a board and we had bigger and better things ahead of us.
I shouldn't have ate that avocado. Man, it made my lips explode. I must be allergic! Haha... just kidding. I don't know what the heck these were, but we had quite the laugh with them!
The biggest banyan tree I've ever seen. I just had to climb it! This was at Rainbow Falls.
We hiked around to the top of Rainbow Falls. Probably weren't supposed to be there, but you only live once!
One of Robert's best friend's parents actually live in the city of Volcano near Volcanoes National Park. We stopped in to say hello and had a wonderful lunch before getting a tour with them of the park. Above is the Kilauea caldera in the background. It's been erupting since 1983!
While VNP wasn't my favorite part of the island I think there's definitely some fun hikes to be had here. I kept imagining the crazy trail runs and races they could have in the park. By the way, hiking at mid-day on top of black lava rock is HOT! Not Florida hot, but hot enough!
If Jenny was with me I had a feeling we'd be running this trail! :-)
After hitting up VNP and the area around Hilo it was time to get back to the Kona side of the island. We started off early and did the epic Saddle Road drive that crosses between Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, the two tallest peaks in all of Hawaii. Mauna Kea is a dormant volcano and also home of multiple observatories. Scientists and astronomers love it up there because of the lack of light pollution and the high elevation making it one of the best places to star gaze on Earth. It's also home of the Keck Telescope, which is 8-stories high! If you're a space geek like myself all of this is fascinating, but I won't bore you with it.
The drive up Saddle Road is almost as fun as the destination, the top or nearly the top of Mauna Kea (13,796 feet). It truly is an epic drive where 4x4 or AWD is recommended.
The last half mile or so has to be hiked to the official summit. Robert and I found we had the summit to ourselves for nearly 2 hours in the middle of the day. We took turns running the route back in forth until we were both clearly hypoxic.
Mauna Kea is the tallest mountain in the world (once you take away the ocean) at around 33,000 feet. That's taller than Everest, but not higher. Definitely worth a hypoxic handstand!
Yoga anyone??? Note: Robert and I switched jackets since mine had a hood and he wanted to go back to the car to retrieve something. The crazy thing about being up there was if you were in the wind it was really cold, but if you moved away from the windward side of the summit it was pleasant.
Yup, that item he went to retrieve was our boardshorts, snorkels and dive masks. How many people do you think have stood on top of Mauna Kea ready to swim? The Big Island is one of the few places in the world that I know of where you can be surfing and snow skiing in the same day. There wasn't any snow on top of Mauna Kea while we visited, but a lot of the year does have snow pack.
We stayed up there for sunset. Quite a few people showed up for sunset so we weren't alone anymore. The temperature dropped down to 36 degrees and it was beautiful. One of my top 10 sunsets! After dusk we headed down to the visitor's center at 9,000 feet where they have amateur astronomy night on Saturdays. There were dozens of large telescopes with people operating them and it was free to view at the Heavens. I looked at Venus through a 16-inch telescope and it looked as big as the Moon does to the naked eye. I could even see the day time side and night time side of the planet. This was hands-down the best star gazing I've ever seen with the Grand Canyon being a close second and aboard a ship in the middle of the Indian Ocean being a third. Sadly, I did not have a film camera, tripod or cable release to do any time-lapse photography.
I did however, have some fun underwater equipment that we played with on our last day in Hawaii all along the northwest coast as we visited the city of Hawi and checked out the Pololu Valley lookout (north of Waipio Valley). The above and below pictures are from the reef only a 100 feet or so off the beach at Lapakahi State Historical Park south of Hawi.
I'll close with a picture of me on the first day after snorkeling the reef at Napoopoo near the Captain Cook Monument. There was a sea urchin shell about 25 feet underwater with the last 10 feet being in a small crevasse of coral. Robert spotted it and asked me to go get it as he couldn't free dive that deep or hold his breath long enough. Me always being up for a challenge said, "ok!" I had no problem getting into the crevasse (not having a tank on my back made it real easy), but as I was swimming out I was more concerned about my head clearance than my legs. I lightly brushed some coral and it sliced open my leg in four different spots! I can't believe I got reef rash and I didn't even get to surf!!! Having experienced scraps from reefs surfing Puerto Rico I was a little concerned about bacteria and polyps. The only thing I could find in my backpack was hand sanitizer. Without thinking I squirted a huge goop of it on the open wound and rubbed it back and forth with my hand. The burn was worse than getting cut in the first place! It was then I learned that it was nearly pure alcohol. Ouch! I might as well have squeezed a lemon on it! Oh well, later on I used some hydrogen peroxide and am happy to report no infection. So that's it. Hawaii! I'll definitely be back and next time I'll bring Jenny and probably check out Oahu and Kauai!
Aloha my friends and Mahalo for reading!