Day 2 – Volcano

Friday, April 2, 2021

We tried to sleep in, but the local time is four hours faster than Mountain Time, so it was a tall order. Before breakfast, we took a short walk around Lili’uokalani Park near the hotel. (Lili’uokalani was the Kingdom of Hawai’i’s last queen. Popular with her people, she instituted programs to give them more power. She ruled from 1891 to 1893, until the United States overthrew the government of Hawai’i and made it into a territory.) There was a nice swimming beach with tan sand and black rock outcrops. In Hawai’i, black or green sand comes from pounded volcanic glass and rock, and white sand comes from sea life, mainly corals and shells. Tan beaches are a mixture. At the edge of an algae-filled tide pool, we admired a pair of kolea (Pacific golden plovers, Pluvialis fula). These small shorebirds are one of Hawai’i’s few migrant species and make a marathon 3000-mile journey between Hawai’i and Alaska each year, with three or four solid days of flying each way.

Steam vents along the crater rim trail at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park

Ken’s House of Pancakes, a Hilo landmark diner, has been “jammin’ since 1971.” For breakfast, I enjoyed my first authentic Hawaiian loco moco (Loco moco is a hamburger patty over a bed of rice, topped with mushroom gravy.), and Joseph had crab cake eggs Benedict. The coffee at Ken’s was weak, and we’re self-confessed coffee snobs, so we tried a nearby kiosk called Just Crusin’ Coffee. Their brew was no stronger, but the dirty chai was tasty. We visited the Hilo Farmers Market, where we bought some longan fruit, apple bananas, and an enormous Hawai’i avocado. Every color of produce filled this classic tropical market. Before leaving town, we stopped by “Two Ladies Mochi,” where I ordered some ginger mochi, only made on Fridays. I also ordered a signature strawberry mochi, crafted with adzuki bean paste, and fresh pear mochi, made with green tea. All were excellent! Photos below, Jammin’ since 1971 and the colorful Hilo Farmers Market

Though we traveled less than thirty miles from Hilo to Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, we rose in elevation nearly four thousand feet. The ecological changes were obvious as we climbed the the slopes of Kilauea. Hilo is a true tropical rainforest, but the town of Volcano is more temperate with a mixture of native trees and tree ferns. The Volcano Inn, a bed and breakfast, was a lucky find. We stayed on the second floor of the annex in the “Lava Room,” with big picture windows that overlooked the rainforest. The room was welcoming with fresh anthurium flowers and orchids on the table. 

After settling in our room, we left to visit Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. First, we stopped at a small store in Volcano Village for some snacks, including peppered tuna jerky (yum), Maui style onion potato chips (yummier), and Kona Brewing Company Castaway IPA (yummiest). The photos below, left to right: fiddlehead from a tree fern in the rainforest, flamingo flower, uluhe (false staghorn fern), and a tiny Brahminy blind snake.

Kilauea has, in my estimation, the second best volcano name in the world (surpassed only by Iceland’s “Grimsvotn.”) Kilauea’s last eruption was 35 years long and manifested mainly as reliable lava flows from the Pu’u O’o Crater on the East Rift Zone. All that ended with a big eruption at the summit crater (Halema’uma’u) in 2018. There was no lava in the park until December 2020, when the Halema’uma’u Crater began to ooze lava. However, the crater had become so deep that no lava was visible from publicly accessible areas when we were there. The National Park Service did not widely advertise this or they may have risked losing visitors until the end of 2021, when the crater’s lava lake is expected to fill up and become visible from the caldera’s rim. The caldera was formed around 500 years ago, and it houses the crater, which rises and collapses, and fills with lava and drains, over time. Though the crater was over 1200 feet deep, and we couldn’t see lava, we could see and smell clouds of volcanic fumes and admire sulfur cliffs, fissures, and steaming vents from the rim trail. Photos of Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, below, left to right: sulfur cliffs, tiny sedges and other plants growing near the summit, the edge of the Halema’uma’u Crater from the caldera rim, and a native ohi’a lehua tree in bloom.

Ohi’a lehua is a native Hawaiian tree with red flowers favored by birds like honeycreepers. It’s an early colonizer of lava flows. Legend says that the volcano goddess, Pele, became infatuated with the warrior, Ohi’a, but he was already pledged to Lehua, his love. Pele angrily turned him into a twisted tree for refusing her. But later, she felt sorry for the grieving Lehua, so she turned her into the tree’s beautiful blossoms. If you pick a blossom, it’s said it will rain that day, symbolizing Lehua’s tears. (I say if you’re near Hilo, rain is a fair bet anyway because it’s said to be the rainiest city in the United States.)

In a light rain, we hiked three or four miles around the edge of the caldera, enjoying the native ohi’a forest. There were several beautiful birds, including a bright red ‘apapane (crimson honeycreeper, Vestiaria coccinea), and we heard the calls of many others. We saw a tiny bird that was possibly a Hawaiian ‘amakihi (common honeycreeper, Hemiagnathus virens) that tumbled onto the trail and flew away in about half a second. The forest near the crater rim was a striking sight with the ohi’a’s bright green leaves, scarlet flowers, and dark bark adorned all over with tufts of light green lichens. Back at the Volcano Inn, we enjoyed our snacks and beer, relaxing in our cozy room until darkness and silence swallowed everything. 

Vapor mixed with volcanic fumes at Kilauea’s caldera

Day 1 – The Trip to Hilo

April 1, 2021

Dawn from our balcony at the Hilo Reed’s Bay Hotel

The journey to Hilo lasted about eighteen hours and included two long layovers. Hilo’s airport had the flavor of a World War II-era military base, even though predates the war by two decades. Apparently, the U.S. military assumed control during the 1940s and named it after General Albert Kuali’i Brickwood Lyman, the first U.S. brigadier general with indigenous Hawaiian blood. It has since been renamed Hilo International Airport. Our flight from Denver to Los Angeles was on an infamous 737 Max (The 737 Max was grounded for nearly two years due to design flaws. The month before our trip, the model was briefly grounded again for possible electrical problems.). I felt more at risk from this aircraft than from the coronavirus, but the flight was thankfully uneventful. Los Angeles International Airport was practically a ghost town. The worst part was being the captive audience of a public address system blaring seventies rock ballads on a loop. When a pub, “Rolling Stone,” eventually opened, we discovered an Angel City IPA on tap, and this mitigated the ballad-induced ear-worm torture a little bit.

Before any passengers could leave the terminal in Hilo, we had to wait in line for more COVID-19 testing, but we were happily surprised at the end to find we could bypass the test because of our vaccines. It was also nice to discover our rental car waiting, even though it was late at night and well past the advertised hours. The rental car agent said, “of course we’ll take care of you!” There would be other experiences like this on our trip. Despite profiteers who long ago made “Aloha” into an adage, Aloha is a real thing. In Hawai’i, being considerate of others seems to be more important than rigid rules, and Hawaiians seem reluctant to tell others that they’re on their own unless there is no other way.

We found our hotel easily despite an array of “No Trespassing” signs lined up like security guards across the entrance. Some even sported a handwritten, “THIS MEANS YOU!” When he saw our gestures of confusion, one of the owners came out to the parking lot and explained that they had reopened that day for business after the pandemic shutdown. He seemed surprised by our confusion. When we pointed to the “No Trespassing” signs, he vaguely said,“Yeah, I guess it’d probably be a good idea to take those down now,” but the signs were still up the next day when we checked out, waiting for the next guests.

The Hilo Reeds Bay Hotel takes a visitor back in time. It was nicely vintage, with real keys, and the rooms had no phones. The hotel was clean and quiet except for the peeping of coqui frogs outside at night. Native to Puerto Rico, these tree frogs apparently arrived in the late 1980s as hitchhikers on nursery plants, and they came to stay. We didn’t see the tiny critters, but we surely heard their loud little voices. In between waves of frog-song, we could hear ocean waves outside through the room’s jalousie windows. In the morning, we saw the waves swirling around jagged black rocks not far below our window. Surrounded by colorful tropical vegetation, the hotel was in a nice little spot on Banyan Drive. Banyan Drive was named for huge banyan trees planted by celebrities since the 1930s, many with commemorative plaques. The trees were covered in all manner of epiphytes that created little ecosystems and frog homes on the branches. The oldest banyans survived several tsunamis, the largest from earthquakes in the Aleutian Islands in 1946, the coast of Chile in 1960, and a quake off the coast of Hawai’i in 1975.

Banyan tree outside the Hilo Reeds Bay Hotel