Day 6 – The East Coast of the Big Island

An enormous banyan tree shading some parked cars in Hilo

A personable, magenta-haired barista at the Waimea Coffee Company made an açaí bowl and blue smoothie for us shortly after checking out of our motel. Açaí bowls were invented in Brazil, but they came into America through Hawai’i. Despite my love of food and the presence of açaí bowls in U.S. cuisine for over a decade, I had managed never to try one. The bowl was really good and really cold. For others who have never tried this dish, an açaí bowl is a fruit smoothie crowned with various healthy toppings like the traditional combination of granola, bananas, peanut butter, blueberries, and a drizzle of honey.

Along the island’s east coast, we stopped at Laupahoehoe Point and watched the sea crash to shore in white spray against jumbles of jagged black rocks. Whoever named the Pacific didn’t do it in this particular spot. Much of the Big Island of Hawai’i’s coastline, in fact, is anything but peaceful. There is a memorial at Laupahoehoe Point for 25 people who were lost in the 1946 tsunami. Three people survived the event there, all dragged out to sea on debris and later rescued. Near the memorial were some kukui (candlenut trees, Aleurites moluccanus), a fascinating tree with husk-covered, fat-laden fruits that look like pear-shaped macadamia nuts when shelled. The candlenut was named the Hawai’i State Tree in 1959 despite being imported from Polynesia, and the nuts are reportedly toxic raw but edible when cooked.

Further down the coast is ‘Akaka Falls State Park. A driving, soaking rain confronted us when we arrived, so we went back down the road to Hilo Shark’s Coffee in Honomu and enjoyed cups of rich coffee made from beans grown and roasted there on the mountain. After visiting Glass from the Past, an interesting little antique shop next door that specialized in vintage bottles, the rain had let up enough that we tried to hike the falls again. The whole park was so beautiful! There were stands of golden bamboo, an incredibly huge, old banyan tree with notches carved in one of the myriad trunks for climbing, and other plants so dense and healthy that it seemed we were in a botanic garden, but this garden had fresh, cool air and no glass walls. First we got a sidelong glance at Kahuna Falls (kahuna means priest in Hawaiian), which were running strong from the rain, then the trail looped around to the main ‘Akaka falls. The falls were swollen from rain, and several other thin but tall falls ran nearby. Three more waterfalls were waiting for us to admire from the trail on the way back to the car. Even though the trail can be crowded, and there is an entrance fee, which was on the honor system when we visited, this trail was more than worth the stop. It’s also more than worth the entrance fee, which we did not hesitate to pay because the revenue helps support the park.

Later in Hilo, we were hankering for a burger, so we stopped at the “Hilo Burger Joint.” It was somewhat busy, even after 2 p.m. We found the food to be good but not great, but unfortunately the service was terrible. It was our server’s first day on the job. We’re usually very forgiving of this, but the poor lady had obviously not been trained, and nobody was helping her. Our order was wrong, and after we received our food, we were totally on our own. Joseph could have used another cup of coffee, for instance, but nobody came by, and it was hard to find anyone. We waited a really long time for our check before we had to get up and ask for it. On the upside, I was able to try a Hilo Breakwall IPA, which was really good. A lot of talented brewmasters live in Hawai’i, especially on the Big Island.

We rented a cabin at Volcano National Park that would be better for locals, who can bring supplies, than for visitors like us, who have been limited to airline baggage. There was only one electrical outlet, no heat, and access to a single bathroom for the whole campground. Linens were provided as advertised, which fortunately included two big comforters that kept us pretty warm but captured a lot of damp condensation by morning. There were no good hiking trails near the cabin, so I followed a game trail for a while into the ohi’a forest on the outside slope of Kilauea. A series of rock hills sounded hollow like drums when I stepped on them. They were actually underground lava tubes! After about half an hour, I turned around and promptly got lost trying to retrace my steps. Not too lost, really, because I could hear the road in the distance, and I had GPS on my phone, but it was a bushwhack back to the cabin. On the way I saw two kalij pheasant hens, one with a chick, and some gorgeous bamboo orchids (Arundina graminifolia).

Ohi’a forest at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park

After dark, we drove to the crater rim and hiked to an overlook to experience the red glow of liquid lava. Earlier in the week, visitors were allowed to the parking lot below the Jaggar Museum, which now sits a lot closer to the Halema’uma’u Crater than it used to. The museum is part of the Hawaii Volcano Observatory. The museum building was damaged and closed during the 2018 eruption and may never reopen. The Jaggar Museum isn’t the only casualty of Kilauea’s recent eruptions. There was once a road that circled the caldera rim. Aerial views show how sections of this road were obliterated as the caldera’s rim began to shift. Pieces of road can be seen still intact below the rim. Tonight, we were only allowed to go as far as the Kilauea Overlook, one parking lot down from the Jagger Museum, but we could see the red glowing gases well as they rose in the light rain, a sight not soon forgotten. We would find out later that an old friend, Lani Lisa, had come to this same caldera rim during the 2018 eruption. This is where she began to embrace her birth name, Lani, which had previously been only a leading initial L. Even a sideways glance into the goddess, Pele’s, home has the power to change a human life.

The cabins were a ten minute drive from Volcano House, the only place still open where we could get some warm food and hot drinks. The drinks consisted of weak Swiss Miss hot cocoa mix, but the food was pretty good, especially the hot tomato bisque. Everything was terrifically overpriced, as National Park Service vendors tend to be. COVID precautions meant that dinner was served in styrofoam containers in stapled paper bags, which servers delivered to the front counter for us to pick up. Dining at Volcano House in happier, pre-pandemic days may have been more charming, but styrofoam tends to siphon off a lot of charm for me.

Back at the cabin, I walked to the nearby campground. It was closed to campers during the pandemic but open to walkers. I wasn’t sleepy and wanted to catch a glimpse of stars. Even from the campground, Kilauea’s red glow stretched across a slice of the sky. Later in the night, I would wake up from my dreams, imagining the volcano’s enormous magma chamber churning deep below. Pele’s bodily form is understood to be the volcano itself – the lava, the vents, the fumes. All of it is Pele. Magnified by the darkness, the goddess was even more disconcerting from our tiny cabin, perched on her back.

Day 5 – Return to the Kohala Coast

A panoramic view of Mahai’ula Beach by the historic fishing camp

Driving can get tiresome day after day, so we opted to return to Anaeho’omalu Bay (locally known as A-Bay) rather than explore further south as we’d originally planned. First, we stopped to take a look at the world-class Hapuna beach. The stretch of white sand was extraordinarily beautiful but crowded, so we didn’t stay long. We opted instead for a hike at the less accessible Makalawena Beach, which draws fewer people. Continuing south, we made a couple stops before going to the beach. First was the Malama Trail to the Puako Petroglyph Park near the Mauna Lani Resort. The trail leads to an 800-year-old Native Hawaiian site with thousands of petroglyphs (kii pohaku, meaning “image stone”), mainly of warriors and other human forms. On the way, we saw a vivid red house finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) and his mate, a pair of tiny buff colored birds with dark backs, and lots of little red-eyed mongooses (Herpestes javanicus) that scampered around the lava rocks like squirrels. After this, we visited the Queens Market near A-Bay, an outdoor mall where we met a friendly lady at Malibu shirts who sold us a new hoodie with a vintage pattern of the Hawai’i Surf Club for Joseph and a tee shirt featuring humu humu nuku nuku a pua’a, the Hawaiian state fish, also known as the reef triggerfish (Rhinecanthus rectangulus). On the way out, I spotted a wild goat with a jet black coat posing on a small tower of rock in a lava field near the highway.

The drive out to Mahai’ula Beach was passable but a little rough. It’s not far, but the road crawls over lava rock. Plenty of sedans make their way in, though. Inexplicably, a couple of short stretches of tarmac had been laid down over the lava in the middle of the route, and these came complete with speed bumps and traffic signs warning us to keep the speed down! Mahai’ula Beach is in Kekaha State Park, which also includes beautiful shorebirds, anchialine pools, a historic fishing camp, and our destination, Makalawena Beach. Several young women were working at the anchialine pools, probably part of a restoration effort to return native Hawaiian red shrimp (‘opae’ula, Halocaridina rubra) to the area. Anchialine pools are landlocked freshwater pools with an underground connection to the ocean. These particular pools were flooded with sand from the 2011 tsunami in Japan that damaged the Fukashima Daiichi nuclear power plant and killed thousands of people. The fishing camp at Kekaha State Park has never been accessible by road. It was built in 1880 by a fisherman named John Kaelemakule as his home, and it’s now a state-owned historic landmark. Reaching Makalawena Beach requires a mile-long hike over a jagged, black aa trail. It’s worth it. The hiker is rewarded with white sand dunes, acres of beach morning glory (Convolvulus cneorum), and a gorgeous beach without big crowds. Though the water was choppy, I ventured in, getting a good soak in the surprisingly chilly waters of the South Pacific.

Rather than try an unknown restaurant that may or may not be good, we decided to revisit the Lava Lava Beach Club for dinner. After waiting in line just to talk to the hostess, we were told the wait for a table would be two and a half hours. There are a lot worse places to be than the beach club’s waiting area, with a large green lawn, a vintage Volkswagen bus turned mini bar, and a cheesy, flashing, lighted “Aloha” sign. I enjoyed a Mai Tai while watching the sunset while Joseph enjoyed a nice red wine. The wait turned out to be only an hour and a quarter before we were seated outside listening to live music and I was enjoying ahi with saffron jasmine rice and etouffe sauce, fresh vegetables, and another Big Swell IPA. Joseph had a signature sizzling shrimp dish and an IPA. The music was provided by a young woman who sang and played the guitar, giving us exceptional, bluesy takes on some of my favorite rock songs. Unfortunately, we didn’t get her name. While enjoying dinner, some of the resident wild cats started prowling around in search of ear scratches and handouts. One warmed up to Joseph while another shy kitty hunched up on a surfboard stacked along the fence, watching everything with wary feline eyes.