Kathie and I just returned from a great vacation: Skiing in Aspen, Colorado! Dan graciously invited us and some other friends to stay at his family’s condo, which was in a great location, convenient to everything in Aspen.
Kathie’s blog has our day-by-day journal, so I’m not going to repeat everything here… just click through and check out the story there! We’ve also uploaded our vacation photos to an Aspen Vacation album in our Gallery.
Friday was our last day in Hawaii. It’s amazing how fast 8 days can pass by when you’re on vacation. Since our flight wasn’t scheduled to leave until 10pm we had one more full day to explore Hawaii. We checked out of our pretty fantastic condo and had one more fling at our favorite breakfast place, Lava Java.
Since our Hilo trip was a bit of a bust, we decided to try it again today. The drive was uneventful and much faster since we didn’t take any scenic detours this time. We stopped for lunch at a Thai place that had gotten good reviews in our Fodor’s book. The food was decent, but not fantastic. After lunch we headed to the two falls right outside of Hilo: Rainbow Falls, and Pe’epe’e Falls.
Rainbow Falls is best seen after a heavy rain, unfortunately we hadn’t gotten much rain while we were there so the falls were pretty tame, but still quite beautiful. The water falls down eighty feet with a cave right behind it. There’s also lots of lush vegetation around the falls and a staircase to see the top of the falls. Unlike a typical river that falls over a cliff, there are huge “bowls” where the water sits until the water gets high enough. There are even some areas that locals use as a swimming hole.
After exploring Rainbow Falls, we drove up a little further to Boiling Pots, a series of cascading pools. The water falls from Pe’epe’e Falls enters Boiling Pots, an area of old lava rocks and tubes. With a heavy rain, the water appears to boil and bubble as it moves downstream. We followed a pathway down towards the pots and watched locals and tourists swimming in one of the “pots” (low water levels makes it much safer) and one of the locals was cliff-jumping into the water. Again another beautiful area. I’d highly recommend bringing a swimsuit and hanging out at either falls if you’re visiting this area.
We went back to Hilo and drove through Banyan Drive, a lane that curves around the waterfront with banyan trees planted by various celebrities like Babe Ruth, Amelia Earhart, and Cecil B. DeMille. Each of the banyan trees has a small plaque in front with the name of the planter. We stopped at Liliuokalani Gardens on Banyan Drive. The garden is the largest formal Japanese garden outside of Tokyo. The garden looks so well-manicured with ponds, pagodas, moon-gate bridges, and little fish. It’s a great place to relax and have a picnic. After our fill of nature, we decided to do the tourist thing and walk around the various shops in Hilo and pick up some souvenirs.
With evening approaching, we made the long drive back to Kailua-Kona, and opted for a simple dinner at… you guessed it, Island Lava Java. Finally, we returned our rental car, and waited at the airport for our 10pm flight back home.
We woke up Thursday morning with no real idea of what we wanted to do for the day. We had already seen Kona, travelled north towards Hilo, drove south to the coffee farms and volcano. We had covered pretty much everything that we could do with our little compact car.
Early in the morning, Kathie decided we should go kayaking. On our catamaran snorkeling trip, she noticed a kayak company in the same harbor so she fired up the laptop and found their phone number. We called and they had two spaces available for that morning so we reserved them and got ready. We had time to stop at our favorite morning café, but we only got croissants to go while we headed to the harbor for an early start. Again we had a very small crowd of maybe 12 people and 6 kayaks total. We paddled out of the harbor into Keauhou Bay and into the ocean. The water is quite beautiful with visibility of over 30 feet deep.
We headed south along the cliffs and stopped at Kuamoo Bay and a sea cave also called Dragon’s Throat Sea Cave. The sea cave wasn’t very deep since it’s still pretty new. The guide would take each kayak to the mouth of the entrance and talk about the formation of sea caves and the hawaii shoreline. The cave is called Dragon’s Throat because of the force and spray of water coming from the back of the cave. When the waves come into the cave, there’s a small pocket of air in the back of the cave and with the force of the water, there’s a large booming noise and large spray of water coming back out. It makes kayaking to the entrance of the cave rather exciting since the swells will push us towards then back out of the entrance.
After the sea cave we stopped for some snorkeling and refreshments. The snorkeling was pretty good, not as nice as Kealakekua Bay; however we were lucky to see a pod of dolphins including a mother and baby very close to us. We climbed out of the water for a while to enjoy some snacks, drinks, and great pineapple. For those more adventurous there was a chance to jump off a 23-ft cliff into the water below. Kathie couldn’t resist and tried it pretty quickly but she couldn’t even come close to convincing Mike to make the plunge. Once we finished snorkeling, eating, and jumping we headed back to the Bay.
In Keauhou Bay we were able to get our dog fix. A local comes by every morning with his chocolate retriever Achtung. She’ll retrieve coconuts from the harbor for hours. Kathie had a blast playing with Achtung, especially since the dog would dance in circles waiting for us to throw the coconut into the water. While playing, we got to see a couple of green turtles eating algae at the bottom of the seawall.
We headed back to the condo to shower, clean off, and relax. Since this was nearing the end of our vacation, we wanted to find someplace relatively nice to eat dinner. Using the wonders of the internet we found Don the Beachcomber’s restaurant in Kona that had a lot of great reviews. Mike made the reservation. Kathie enjoyed the seafood, Mike liked the steak, but it wasn’t up to mainland standards in our opinions. After dinner we walked around Kona for a while checking out the various shops, enjoying the weather, and the atmosphere.
After the very long day driving and walking around Volcano Park, we chose to relax, catch up on blogging, do some laundry, and just hang out at the condo all day Wednesday. For breakfast we headed to our favorite stop, Lava Java and noshed on some more yummy cinnamon pull-aparts. While at Lava Java, we saw a cruise ship had anchored sometime last night/early morning and there were already a fair number of tourists in Kailua-Kona. With all the extra people in town, we knew staying at the condo and relaxing was a good idea for us.
That evening we scheduled a luau at Kona Village Resorts. The reviews we read stated this was the best luau on the Big Island. Again we were lucky and it wasn’t terribly crowded so all the seats had good views of the stage. Before the buffet started, we were all able to watch the cooks remove the pig and turkey from the imu, or underground oven. They explained the entire process of the imu and cooking. A pit is dug into the ground and mesquite wood is placed at the bottom with lava rocks. The wood is set on fire and the rocks are allowed to heat for two to three hours. The pig is placed in a wire mesh (once the pig is cooked, it becomes so tender that it needs to be contained or else it falls apart in the imu). The skin and internal cavity of the pig are rubbed with salt then some of the heated lava rocks are placed inside the pig to ensure it is well-cooked. Since an imu cooks meat with steam, green vegetation is used to provide the steam and prevent scorching to the food. The imu is lined with banana leaves, ti leaves and other types. The pig is placed into the imu and covered with more leaves and a covering material, then the dirt is placed on top to prevent steam from escaping. The food is then allowed to cook for about six hours and removed.
After watching the imu process it was time to eat! The buffet was full of pork, turkey, seafood, and vegetables. The food was quite good with the exception of the poi. Poi is a hawaiian staple food made from the taro root. Most first-timers compare poi to wallpaper paste (mostly due to the consistency) and Kathie was no different.
Once everyone finished eating, the show began. The mistress of ceremonies explained the history of hula and how it is divided into two major categories: ancient hula (kahiko) involving chant and traditional instruments, and modern hula (‘auana) accompanied by music and ‘western’ instruments such as guitar and ukulele. Both the men and women dancers were quite good, it’s amazing how the women can move their hips!
We knew Tuesday was going to be a really long day. We were headed to the volcano which is on the far side of the island. Saddle Road cuts right between the two big mountains on the island, but our car rental agreement only allows 4x4s on the road — not our little Chevy Cobalt — so we had to take the long southerly route. We were told it would take us about 3 hrs to get to the volcano park, then another 1½ hrs to get to the lava viewing site (outside the park and on the coast at Kalapana).
Since we were still getting up relatively early, we headed to Lava Java to get our daily dose of cinnamon pastry goodness and headed south for our drive. This morning did not start out quite as hazy as normal in Kona. Since the volcano constantly spews out lava into the ocean, huge plumes of sulfur dioxide steam are released into the air. The trade winds carry the gray fog west to Kona all day long, and it has been officially named vog (volcanic fog). The residents in Kona hate it when Kīleaua is active because the vog can get pretty bad and cast a thick haze over the west coast. Apparently it’s been quite bad for the past few months.
Our drive to the volcano was uneventful with very few other cars on the road. We definitely seem to have hit off-season in Hawaii — in general most of the places we’ve been were very quiet (which we think is just fine). We made it to the Volcano Park by about 11am and headed straight to the Visitors center where we could get the most up-to-date information about the volcano. We confirmed that active lava flow is currently not visible at the park but the best time to watch was in the evening along the coast, so we had plenty time to see the park before the lava viewing. A relatively new vent at Halema’uma’u Crater contains a liquid lava lake, but the lake is only visible from directly overhead (i.e. helicopter). The vent is constantly spewing out poisonous sulfur dioxide gas, so half of Crater Rim Drive which circles the volcano was closed where the gas crosses the road.
We drove down the open part of the road to the steam vents and the first overlook. Steam vents are found throughout the park but at the first overlook you can see it most prominently. Mostly these are areas where rain falls, gets heated by the warm volcano rocks and comes back out as steam. It’s definitely hot, and a little fragrant. At the overlook we were able to see the huge gas vent at Halema’uma’u Crater with an even better view at Jaggar Museum. No wonder the Kona residents get annoyed: that thing puts out major amounts of vog!
We also hiked through the 400-year old Thurston Lava Tube. Lava tubes are tunnels formed when the top part of the lava exposed to the air cools and hardens, while liquid lava continues flowing underneath. Eventually the volcano stops pumping out lava, and the liquid drains away leaving a smooth, hollow tube. The Thurston tube is giant, about 20 feet in diameter at the largest point. We followed the dimly-lighted path 450 feet to a stairway up and out, but since Kat had done her homework before vacation, we brought flashlights and were able to skip the exit and continue another 150 feet through the unlighted tunnel. It’s amazing that once you get past the first curve in the tunnel, it immediately becomes pitch black. It was a bit spooky going so far in the dark, and we only saw one other couple make the trek into the back of the tunnel.
Next on the agenda was a drive down Chain of Craters road, which is a 20-ish mile drive from the 4,000 foot top of the volcano, down to the coast. The road passes along many old, and some recent lava flows, and many very old (and large) craters from past eruptions. At one point we came across two Nēnē, endangered Hawaiian geese. Along the coast, the road is blocked off, so we parked and walked another half-mile to the point where the roadway was covered by a 2003 eruption.
Chain of Craters road ends where the lava flows of 2003 covered it
After driving back up to the caldera, we stopped at the overlook for Kīleaua Iki crater. There is a great hike to this crater, but we just didn’t have the time for it this trip. The hike is a few miles through the rainforest, and then across the smooth surface of a mile-wide hardened lava lake inside the crater. Instead, we looked down onto the crater lake surface from the rim of the crater 400-feet up.
By now it was afternoon, and we were quite hungry, so we stopped in Volcano Village, a small town near the summit of Kīleaua, and had some lunch. We continued driving east, so that we could get to the lava viewing area by evening. We drove down to the coast, and along the other end of Chain of Craters road. Twice we came to fairly long sections of road that were covered by lava flows in March, 2008, and we had to drive up and on top of the lava for a while until the road was accessible again. The state and county had paved a rough lane on top of the lava so our car didn’t have too hard a time, but it was still pretty odd. At one point we saw a “For Sale” sign stuck in the lava pointing to a house that somehow had been spared when the lava covered this side of the island and destroyed the community of Kalapana in 1990. There’s no power, water, or roads left so we don’t expect the house to sell very soon.
Eventually we made it to the end of the road, parked, and grabbed our gear (flashlights, camera, water, etc.). We followed a ½-mile hike across recent lava flows to get to the viewing area. The route was clearly marked, but it was interesting seeing and walking on the recent lava.
The viewing area was a roped-off area on top of the lava, right along the coast, and there was a pretty good crowd of people gathering. The lava from Kīleaua has been flowing continuously since 1983, but the eruptions and flows change location, type, and intensity all the time. A couple years ago, visitors could walk right up to the flowing lava, when it was at the other end of Chain of Craters road. Earlier this year, it was visible coming down the mountainside in ribbons. During our visit, the top of the flows had cooled and hardened, so the lava was flowing through tubes and wasn’t visible. However, once the lava reaches the ocean, it pours in creating huge plumes of steam (and creating new land). As the waves crash on the shore, they block the lava flow for a second, causing huge explosions of lava to shoot up in the air every 15 seconds or so. The best time for viewing is dusk, when the orange glow of the lava is most easily visible. We think we were about ¼ to ½ mile away. It was amazing to watch, but difficult to photograph for a variety of reasons, such as the plume of steam obscuring the lava, the distance requiring a long zoom lens, the night viewing requiring high ISO and long exposures, and my lack of a sturdy tripod. I took about 100 pictures, and am pretty happy with some of them, despite them being fairly grainy (shot at ISO 3200) and shaky (most were taken with 2-second exposures at 200mm zoom). Below are a couple good examples:
Well after nightfall we decided we’d better start heading back, so we made the trek back across the lava (in the dark this time, except for our flashlights) to our cars, and then began the long, 3+ hour drive back across the island to Kailua-Kona.